Arctic rescue fears loom as massive cruise ship prepares to sail Northwest Passage

As first large cruise ship sails through Northwest Passage, coast guard fears for increasing traffic

As a large cruise ship gets ready to sail the Northwest Passage this summer, there are safety concerns about how prepared the Canadian Coast Guard would be should something go wrong.

The mammoth Crystal Serenity cruise ship will make its inaugural 32-day voyage through the waters in August, with about 1,000 passengers and more than 600 crew on board. It will be a first for one of the world's big cruise companies.

Prices have been reported to range from $30,000 to $156,000 per passenger. The ship's voyage will start in Anchorage, Alaska, and end in New York City.

Warming temperatures and a shrinking ice pack have opened up enough of the Northwest Passage for some shipping and large-scale cruising. But it remains one of the most remote and least mapped regions in the world — it is largely out of reach for Canada's search-and-rescue helicopters.

That has some concerned. Michael Byers, a Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, says the Canadian Coast Guard is not properly equipped to handle a disaster in the area.

"If the entire ship — all 1,000 passengers, all 600 crew — require search and rescue, for instance, if the ship sinks, then that would actually break the Canadian search-and-rescue system," he told CBC News.

"They would not be able to get to those people and retrieve them in time."

Running worst-case scenarios

A rescue in the Northwest Passage would likely take days and require military planes to be dispatched from across the country.

In 2010, the smaller Clipper Adventurer cruise ship was travelling through the passage when it struck an uncharted rock shelf in Coronation Gulf, near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. It took almost two days for a coast guard icebreaker to arrive.

Both the Canadian and U.S. coast guards are running a series of worst-case scenario drills and exercises in the Arctic in the next few weeks to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude.

"As a coast guardsman, I don't want a repeat of the Titanic.… We need to make sure we think this through and get it done correctly," Vice-Commandant Charles D. Michel of the U.S. Coast Guard said.

More ships making the trip?

The U.S.-owned Crystal Cruises has chartered its own icebreaker, which will follow the ship the entire time. On board, the company says, there will be polar navigation specialists and ice-spotting radar and lights.

If the August voyage is a success, it is likely that additional large cruise ships will make the trip.

The Canadian Coast Guard says the voyage will serve as a test run to help plan for future cruises.

"We're going to use this event … to evaluate the risks, the challenges and be sure with Transport Canada if the regulations are appropriate," Supt. Peter Garapick told CBC News.

Correction : An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote by Vice-Commandant Charles D. Michel of the U.S. Coast Guard to Rear Admiral Dan Abel of the U.S. Coast Guard. (Apr 04, 2016 3:35 PM)