Braving the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada

As we sat in our Zodiac, watching the humpback whale’s fluke disappear below the water, we heard a sharp popping sound behind us. I turned to see a small chunk of a nearby iceberg breaking off.

Seconds later a massive sheet of ice calved off the iceberg and crashed into the water. My sense of exhilaration quickly turned into apprehension as the resulting wave came speeding toward our boat, growing rapidly as it approached. There were sounds of nervousness from my fellow passengers as we all wondered if this wave was going to grow big enough to flip us over or come crashing down on top of us.

In the end, the wave passed harmlessly beneath us, much to our collective relief. I was only four days into my expedition cruise into the Northwest Passage, and I had already learned a valuable lesson: expect the unexpected.

My iceberg adventure came on Adventure Canada’s Into the Northwest Passage trip, as we made our way into the town of Ilulissat, Greenland, famed for its icefjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The 16-day cruise on the Ocean Endeavour began in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and headed up the Greenlandic coast for several days before crossing the heavy swells of Baffin Bay and entering the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic islands of Canada.

The Ocean Endeavour anchored in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

For centuries, the famed route was explored as the shortest way to sail between the two oceans, and for many, a trip through the passage is as much about the history of exploration as it is about seeing wildlife or stunning Arctic scenery in this notoriously hard-to-reach region.

“The Northwest Passage is by far one of the most unique destinations you can go on an expedition cruise, which is the only way to explore this fascinating region,” said Tudor Morgan, vice president of sustainability and industry relations for Hurtigruten Expeditions. “Firstly, it’s such a limited-time window on when you can travel. To date, there have been less than a hundred transits by passenger vessels throughout history overall, which truly makes it one of the most fabled sea routes in the world.”

A lone hiker at a stop in Paisley Bay on the Boothia Peninsula in the Canadian Arctic.

A dynamic destination

Those early explorers into the passage would discover something that is as true today as it was then: Navigating the narrow and often ice-packed straights is both challenging and extremely unpredictable. And while much has been made of a warmer climate leading to less sea ice, that hasn’t necessarily made things less complicated.

“The climate has changed, and what has happened is that, contrary to what you might think, that’s actually led to more ice in the Arctic region,” said Ashton Palmer, president and founder of Expedition Trips, which specializes in expedition cruises. “In the last couple of years, we’ve had very high ice years.”

He added that the unpredictable nature of the passage has affected how many operators are running tours in the region, explaining that three years ago more companies started sailing the Northwest Passage, but several of them backed out after multiple years with heavier ice conditions.

Graves from the famed Franklin expedition on Canada's Beechey Island.

In 2016, Crystal Cruise brought a 1,000-plus-passenger luxury ship through the passage, accompanied by an escort vessel, but that feat has yet to be repeated with such a large vessel. In the 2018 season, there was so much ice that no cruises were able to make it through the passage, and in the years since several ships have had to rely on Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker vessels to clear a channel for them.

According to Melissa Nacke, the head of operations for the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), 11 member vessels planned to complete the passage in 2023, while six completed the journey in 2022. (Not all ships operating in the passage are AECO members.) She also explained that the ice conditions are not the only thing influencing the number of operators, pointing out that factors such as the Russia-Ukraine war have resulted in some vessels diverting from the Baltic Sea to other parts of the Arctic.

An unpredictable adventure

Most expedition cruises have an element of unpredictability to them, the opportunity to deviate from the itinerary when possible, and that seems to be particularly true in the Canadian Arctic. Chris Dolder, the expedition team leader on my Adventure Canada trip, explained that sometimes one route closed down by ice can lead to a new discovery.

Adventure Canada expedition team leader Chris Dolder guides guests past an iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland, where guests visited Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the most active and fastest glaciers in the world.

“When the ice closes up, we can turn what could have been a disaster into a possible opportunity,” he said.

The relatively few ships that operate in the Northwest Passage, the fact that much of the waters have not been fully charted and the short cruise season also mean that there are still many unexplored sites in the area.

On my cruise, we made five stops at landing sites that had never been visited by anyone on the ship, which led to a palpable sense of excitement, both among the passengers and the expedition team members.

“It’s really important that every time we do an expedition we put new pins in the map for others to enjoy after us,” Dolder said. Of course, going to new areas in polar bear country means you may have to have a Plan B; three times on our trip we had to abort or delay landings due to the presence of Ursus maritimus.

While Northwest Passage trips may be unpredictable, cruisers are certain to see a lot of wildlife, experience the vibrant cultures of the Inuit and Greenlandic peoples and learn a ton about the region. The team on my Adventure Canada trip included a historian, an archaeologist, a geologist, an ornithologist and a botanist as well as a handful of local cultural educators, including the former prime minister of Greenland, Aleqa Hammond. Throughout the cruise, we learned from experts about the polar bears, walruses and beluga and humpback whales we spotted as well as current challenges and issues affecting local communities.

Adventure Canada guests contemplate the Ilulissat Icefjord.

As far as the future of cruising the Northwest Passage, with the growth of the expedition cruise industry and more traditional cruise companies getting into the sector, there will undoubtedly be more boats looking to explore the fabled waterway. 

“The growing conversation in the industry is how we manage growth, how to work together as cruise operators to make sure we’re acting responsibly and not making profit our main driving force,” said Alana Bradley-Swan, managing director of the family-owned Adventure Canada. 

Regardless of the changing conditions in the area, based on my experience of calving glaciers, pesky polar bears, stunning sunsets and constantly changing scenery, a trip through the Northwest Passage will provide visitors with unexpected surprises for many years. 

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