For the last however-many hundred years, the Northwest Passage has been a largely theoretical shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the top of Canada.
For centuries, mariners, navigators and explorers have have busted their butts to make the journey through the treacherous, ice-choked and labyrinthine waterways. Most ended in failure or disaster, some even trapped in ice for years.
Our ebullient expedition leader (EL), Boris Wise, aboard One Ocean's (OOE) Akademik Ioffe warned us. “We have a daily schedule, but the only thing we guarantee is that we'll get you to Kugluktuk on August 26."
Fair call from any experienced EL. Expedition cruising is all about the unexpected, the ability to exploit opportunities as they arise and avoid adversity when it appears. Most mornings Boris is poring over the ice charts arriving by satellite from Canada's coastal monitoring authority. Red splotches are heavy (10/10) ice, while pale blue is (<1/10) and effectively ice free. While there is plenty of red, there's also plenty of blue detours and as the journey pans out, our transit through the narrow Bellot Strait, which thwarted so many early explorers, was even conducted in a Zodiac. Boris and the captain scan the horizon with powerful binoculars, not to find a way through, but to actually find some ice.
Before I rush to join the chorus of climate change alarmists, let's remember climates do change. We have thousands, even millions, of years of evidence, yet it is hard to refute that we (the world) are currently experiencing a period of warmer global temperatures. Certainly the previously impenetrable Northwest Passage (or North-West Passage if you are an English historian) is yielding to more maritime traffic and expedition cruise companies like OOE are taking full advantage of that.
On my previous voyage aboard Ponant, the captain advised guests their inaugural passage in 2013 aboard Le Soleal is already sold-out and wait-listed. Adventure Canada (who absorbed the troubled Cruise North in 2011) and Hapag-Lloyd are also offering NW Passage cruises each year. OOE were running about 85 per cent capacity including a few industry guests like myself, but sell-outs on this historic journey with a narrow window of opportunity (at least until recently) are common.
Rest easy, the risk of becoming beset in ice is no more. Even if your expedition finds itself surrounded by a dense pack and unable to proceed, a satellite phone call to the Canadian Coast Guard will have one of their standby icebreakers on the scene in a few hours to escort you through. A handy backup service provided by the Canadian Government, just in case.
The highlights of any NWP voyage are the combined elements of wildlife, nature, culture, environment and history – and there are plenty of all to go around. Each day our squad of naturalists revised the mammal and bird checklist, while others with a penchant for the microscopic updated the plants. Yes, polar bears, walrus, seals, whales and even a rare Peary's Caribou had the animal spotters hopping with delight. See semi-daily reports at www.expeditioncruising.com
About the Expeditionist
Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.