Looming cruise ship traffic in Arctic raises search-and-rescue concern

The Arctic. CBC photoThe Northwest Passage, the Arctic waterway claimed by Canada, has long been a lure for adventurers. Lately, climate change, which is producing a longer ice-free season, is making it even more attractive.

That makes Michael Byers nervous.

Byers is Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and an expert on the Arctic. In a column this week in the Globe and Mail, Byers warns Canada's thinly stretched coast guard is not up to the challenge of a large-scale rescue effort in far northern waters.

And it may just get an opportunity, he contends, when the 196-metre ship The World attempts a transit of the Northwest Passage later this month.

Byers describes The World as the largest privately-owned yacht on the planet. The Bahamian-registered vessel is more of a floating luxury condo complex, he says, with 165 individual units valued at up to $13 million apiece.

"The voyage will not undermine Canada's legal position that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters, since The World will request and receive permission before it sails through," Byers writes.

"Rather, the risk is of an accident involving more than 400 people in a remote and inhospitable region where Canada's search-and-rescue capabilities are inadequate to the task."

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Smaller, ice-strengthened cruise ships have already illustrated the dangers inherent in such "expeditions," Byers says.

The Canadian-owned Explorer sank on a 2007 Antarctic cruise when it struck a small piece of iceberg, known as a growler, near the South Shetland Islands. All 150 people on board were rescued by an Argentine Coast Guard ship.

In 2010, massive waves caused the cruise ship Ciella II with 88 passengers on board to lose power and communications during a return from Antarctica. The crew was able to make repairs and the ship limped into port in southern Argentina.

And earlier this year, the MV Plancius had to take refuge at a remote research station on King George Island after its engines failed in those remote waters, its passengers were rescued by another ship as their "adventure cruise" abruptly ended.

Closer to home, Byers notes that the German-owned MS Hanseatic ran aground on a sand bar in the Northwest Passage near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Disaster was averted by good weather and a rescue ship that arrived within a week. From Russia.

Two years ago, the U.S.-owned Clipper Adventurer hit an underwater ledge near Kugluktuk, Nunavut, again in good weather. This time, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen was able to arrive within two days.

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Inadequate charts are a big issue in northern waters, Byers points out, citing an expert who said only 10 per cent of Canada's Arctic waters are charted to modern standards.

Unpredictable and extreme weather is also a major factor, says Byers.

"Last summer, I sailed the Northwest Passage twice, and both times encountered gale-force winds and seven-metre swells," he says.

"Winds and waves like this are not usually a problem, but they will tear a grounded vessel apart — leaving the passengers, many of whom would be elderly, with no choice but to abandon ship."

Help would likely have to come from Canadian Forces Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters that are based in Comox, on Vancouver Island, and Greenwood, N.S., which would need more than a day to reach any wreck site.

Canada's aged C-130 Hercules search-and-rescue aircrafts are often unusable to help because of maintenance issues, Byers contends. Promises to replace them are as yet unfulfilled. And the coast guard's fleet of icebreakers is also showing its age, while the Royal Canadian Navy as yet has no ice-capable vessels.

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The World is the largest passenger vessel yet to sail the Northwest Passage, Byers says, but dozens of much larger cruise ships already visit Greenland and Norways Svalbard Archipelago.

"They include the 3,780-passenger Costa Pacifica, the sister ship of the Costa Concordia, which ran onto the rocks off Italy earlier this year," Byers points out.

"It's clear that Canada's search-and-rescue capabilities require an emergency upgrade. Unless, that is, we're willing to stand helplessly by — as hundreds or even thousands of foreign tourists die in what we proudly insist is our Arctic."

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