Hybrid-electric ships and COVID-19 precautions: Cruise operators prepare return to Arctic

·4 min read
Le Commandant Charcot, the first hybrid-electric polar exploration ship powered by liquefied natural gas, will be travelling through the Beaufort Sea in the fall as part of a trip from Iceland to Alaska. (Compagnie du Ponant website - image credit)
Le Commandant Charcot, the first hybrid-electric polar exploration ship powered by liquefied natural gas, will be travelling through the Beaufort Sea in the fall as part of a trip from Iceland to Alaska. (Compagnie du Ponant website - image credit)

Cruise ships returning to the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the pandemic will be facing new expectations when it comes to COVID-19 protocols and environmental protections.

Vanessa Lee, president of Cruise Strategies Ltd., which helps promote, train and organize cruises, said cruise lines she's working with will enforce vaccine requirements and regular testing, make masking mandatory in common spaces and have a separate space aboard the ship in case someone needs to isolate.

"Being very, very careful is a huge part of cruising these days," Lee said.

Cruises in a COVID-19 world

Ray Ruben Sr., the mayor of Paulatuk, N.W.T., told CBC News in an interview last week he felt it was too soon to allow visitors into his community.

His concerns are also reflected in a cruise ship management plan released by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC).

Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization
Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization

"All operators must follow any Interim Orders instated by the federal and territorial governments. The territorial government reserves the right to prevent any vessel from landing onshore if there is a significant health risk to the community," the plan reads.

Environment a top concern

The IRC's plan also states that it does not support the use of icebreakers for non-resupply activities, including in the Beaufort Sea, due to the fact it can disrupt animal migration patterns.

It stated cruise ships should only travel during open water season, which is typically between early July and mid-September.

Lee said some of her clients are also moving to ways to protect the fragile Arctic ecosystem as their cruise ships pass through Arctic waters.

That includes the use of hybrid-electric vessels like Le Commandant Charcot, run by French cruise ship operator Pontant. An online pamphlet says it is the first hybrid-electric polar exploration ship powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Hilary Bird/CBC
Hilary Bird/CBC

According to a government of Canada website, LNG is especially well-suited for ocean vessels because as a liquid, the natural gas is reduced to 1/600th of its original volume. This makes it easy to transport, especially in the Arctic where there are limited refuelling stations and a federal law that prohibits ships from dumping toxic waste, including spent fuel.

"More and more of this is coming in, and the cruise lines are taking it very, very seriously to keep this environment pristine," Lee said.

Le Commandant Charcot will sail through the Beaufort Sea in late September as part of a journey from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Nome, Alaska, but it does not have any scheduled stops in N.W.T. communities.

Concerns about cruise numbers increasing

Climate change has been lengthening the open water season, raising the likelihood of increased popularity for the Northwest and Northeast Passage cruises.

But Lee said she hopes the longer season doesn't result in the area becoming a popular tourist destination that becomes overrun.

"I think we have to be very careful and very thoughtful about the number of ships allowed to cruise in the destination area," she said.

Lee said the Arctic should be treated similar to the Galápagos Islands and Antarctica, with limits to the number of visitors in order to protect the fragile environment.

A bucket list destination

Lee said the types of passengers who cruise the Arctic tend to be Americans, some Canadians, as well Europeans, typically in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

"These areas of the world are very, very interesting and fascinating to a lot of people, but particularly now when people have been cooped up for two years," she said.

"I think the bucket list aspect of going to the far North, going into the Arctic, sailing in the Northwest or Northeast Passage past Greenland, seeing wonderful wild animals and the pristine ice."

Donna Akhiatak, an artist in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., and manager of the hamlet's art centre, told CBC News that in the past, the art centre would be jam packed with tourists when ships arrived.

Lee said she expects the artwork to remain a popular attraction.

"They want to be supportive when you go and meet people from far away lands that live a completely different lifestyle," she said.

"And so they want to take something home with them that gives them a wonderful reminder of where they have been."

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