Risk vs Reward

Up Here Business June 2009

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the MS Explorer launched the cruise-ship industry in Arctic Canada by taking 98 tourists on a 23- day voyage through the Northwest Passage. It was a triumphant moment for the purposely designed Arctic cruise ship, making it the first to bring the (relative) masses to one of the most legendary and remote places on Earth.

In November 2007, however, in the South Shetland Islands off Antarctica, the veteran vessel with an ice-strengthened hull and Class 1A rating notched another first: It struck an iceberg and became the first cruise ship to sink in polar waters. It happened in benign ice conditions and calm seas.

The Explorer is a cautionary tale for the growing polar cruise industry. There is no official track of numbers, but Nunavut’s Department of Economic Development and Transportation says about 2,110 people cruised the Canadian Arctic on 23 trips through six different companies in 2007. The 2008 season peaked at 26 cruises and this year, cruise ship traffic is expected to hold steady – seven vessels plan to take passengers on 25 separate cruises making Arctic ports of call. Further afield, if you’re willing to pay $30,000, Oregon-based Polar Cruises advertises they will take you to the North Pole aboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker, in your own private suite with champagne and caviar. Way down south, cruise tourism has increased to the point where on any given day during high season, 20 to 30 boats are heading to or from Antarctica, some carrying almost 3,000 passengers.

The risk of accidents, the threat to wildlife, and our ability to clean up any mess have all arisen as issues to be faced. As Northern communities strive for a piece of the new economic pie generated by cruise ships, will the risks prove to be worth it?

The number of cruises into Nunavut waters is increasing, as are the length and frequency of shore stops at the larger centres. In 2009, the tiny community of Resolute (population: 229) expects
cruise ships, up from the record 17 in the 2008 season. As well, many cruise ships start and end their journeys there. Another Nunavut community, Cambridge Bay, expects cruise ship visits to double.

Where they do visit ports, tourists do some spending on small purchases like handicrafts and food. Sometimes these can amount to $10,000 per stop. As well, local guides are hired, meals are arranged, fresh provisions are taken on, and gasoline for zodiacs is purchased. As for the broader economic picture, unfortunately, not all operator profits accrue to the North. In 2008, out of eight cruise ship operators in the Arctic, just one was Northern-owned. Quebecbased Cruise North Expeditions is owned by Makivik Corp., the birthright company for the Inuit of Nunavik. “We partner with our sister companies, First Air and Air Inuit, which are 100 per cent Inuit-owned,” says Cruise North president and CEO Dugald Wells. They also maintain 13 Inuit trainees aboard the ship as cultural presenters and field guides. “The trainees work alongside academic naturalists and learn not only guiding techniques, but public speaking skills and scientific disciplines including glaciology, ornithology, botany and more.” He adds that Inuit will begin training later in the season as expedition manager.

Even where direct economic benefits are small, cruise ships can develop goodwill. The hamlet of Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, gets six to nine ships a year, but has seen a slow decline in the amount of money spent in the community. But residents don’t despair. “We have an annual soccer game with one of the ships,” says Colin Saunders, Pond Inlet’s community economic development officer. “It’s a very good-natured game with a nice little trophy that usually changes hands every year.” In 2008, the Pond Inlet team walked away with the trophy – a rubber chicken. Saunders says next time they may let the tourists win it back.

Wells thinks this sort of activity shouldn’t be downplayed even though it provides little direct economic gain. “Community pride of place – this is a soft benefit, but very important,” he says. He believes most Inuit are justifiably proud of their leadership position in this small but high profile industry. “Our guests are mainly educated, influential people from around the world. They return home as ambassadors for the region, carrying the messages of the modern Inuit culture and issues that they have encountered and shared with their Inuit hosts.”

But those numbers and anecdotes don’t tell the whole story about increasing cruise traffic in Canada’s Arctic. Much of the offshore action involves no particular remuneration, such as remote landing spots along the Northwest Passage like Beechey Island, where Sir John Franklin’s ships spent the winter of 1845-1846. Sixteen different cruises with possibly multiple visits on the same day raise concerns of damage to important heritage sites, too.

And these limited economic and social gains are being made at considerable risk to the Arctic ecosystem. “There are two main environmental risks with Arctic cruises,” says Dianne Draper, a professor at the University of Calgary’s geography department. “The danger of grounding or sinking is one. With respect to ice, caution is warranted, especially in the Northwest Passage where you get denser, multi-year ice – there’s a choke here so it’s more dangerous than anywhere else.” She says these risks will grow and require managing. “Accidents can happen and if they’re in a sensitive area there will be a negative effect.”

The other major risk stems from ship noise, which hasn’t been adequately studied in Arctic conditions. “These [Arctic and Antarctic] are quiet oceans and there’s the issue of the effect of noise on marine wildlife,” Draper says. “We don’t know what these are. We should be cautious.”

Further, cruise operators in Canada’s Arctic don’t have the equivalent of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) or Europe’s Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) to ensure voluntary codes of practice are followed.

But there are regulations. Captain Don Connelly, of Vancouver Island-based DC Marine Offshore Services, says he’s not aware of any standard ice classification levels for entering areas of Antarctic ice or a regulated level of bridge experience in ice-infested waters. “This is something we do have in Canada, which reduces the risk of such an event happening,” he says.

Connelly, who can boast more than 25 years of bridge experience in Arctic ice regimes in Canada, Alaska and eastern Russia, says Canada divides its Arctic waters into shipping zones depending on ice intensities. “These shipping zones provide geographical limits for all vessels carrying more than 453 cubic metres of oil,” he says. “To put things into perspective, a passenger vessel would typically carry more than [that] and would have to comply.” He says if he had to suggest a potential risk for a marine accident in Canadian Arctic waters it would result from not having experienced vessel operators or operators not complying with the Northern Canada Traffic Regulation System – Transport Canada’s agency monitoring Arctic Ocean traffic. NORDREG will recommend vessel routing, but ships do not have to register with the agency.

Adding to that, Connelly says there is limited information available for Arctic water depths except on the main transit routes. “If a vessel enters into an area of little depth information with no local knowledge, they are introducing risk into the transit.” And that’s where a mistake could be fatal in remote regions. “Vessels transiting and working in the Canadian Arctic need to be aware that they are working in an area that does not have the same response capability as one would find on the east or west coast of Canada,” Connelly says.

In the case of the MS Explorer, it was IAATO’s emergency plan that saved the day. Other member ships, such as the National Geographic Endeavour, were just 65 kilometres away, and all passengers and crew were rescued within hours. The ship remains on the ocean floor, and there is no evidence of significant fuel leakage. But without those plans or the intensity of ship numbers – and without the dumb luck that prevented a spill of fuel – what might happen in a Canadian Arctic disaster?

A recent paper by Draper and Emma Stewart, in the journal Arctic, reported that the chances of a disaster happening increase with climate change. “Changing sea-ice conditions are particularly worrisome for cruise operators in Arctic Canada because under climate warming, denser, hull-penetrating, multi-year ice may present navigational hazards,” the authors write. And it’s that thinning of ice conditions that will attract more Northwest Passage transits, increasing chances of iceberg impacts, grounding and other incidents.

Unmonitored transits are already on the increase. Last August, NORDREG reported a record number of at least eight foreign pleasure craft somewhere in the Northwest Passage, many of them poorly prepared. The year before, there were only five. The Canadian Ice Service reported that 2008 was the third year in a row that the sea route could be navigated, but was quick to point out that there is a difference between a navigable corridor and having the entire area free of sea ice.

When it comes to a rescue in the remote reaches of Canada’s Arctic, search and rescue operations demand extensive coordination. Depending on the location of the cruise ship, the rescue effort could be handled by either JRCC (Joint Rescue Coordination Centre) Trenton or JRCC Halifax, says Hilary Prince, spokesperson for the Canadian Coast Guard Central & Arctic Region. JRCC works with the Coast Guard, military and other partners like the Emergency Measures Organization, the RCMP and local communities to coordinate available resources.

That coordination was put to the test in Canadian Forces Operation Nanook last summer. Nanook simulated a ship in distress in the Iqaluit area, with passengers who required evacuation and medical treatment. In such an event, the JRCC in Halifax would coordinate the response, says Lieutenant Jordan Holder, spokesperson for the Canadian Forces Joint Task Force (North). The Coast Guard and the Navy each had a vessel in the area, and both provided assistance, including air and sealift ashore. The exercise highlighted the critical ingredient of coordination amongst levels of governments and agencies.

But what might happen should the navy or Coast Guard not happen to have a ship close by? With just six Coast Guard icebreakers deployed in the Arctic in summer, response times may well vary considerably from the Nanook simulation.

The cruise industry is not altogether unprepared. On the 100-metre Lyubov Orlova, which will take 122 passengers on nine Arctic cruises this season, Cruise North Expeditions takes survival preparations seriously. “We carry life jackets, life boats equipped with marine radios, emergency food, water, blankets, first aid kits, radar reflectors and flares and inflatable life rafts meeting Transport Canada requirements,” says Dugald Wells. “All passengers are given emergency briefings and drills at the start of every cruise.”

Wells reckons the ice risk in Arctic Canada is somewhat lower than in its southern counterpart. He says ice in Antarctic waters is largely concrete-like glacial ice. But in the Arctic they see mainly ice formed from sea water, which he says is not strong. “When we see it in the summer, it is generally rotten – honeycombed with drainage holes – and much weaker.” He says the ship is designed to withstand normal, controlled contact with this sea ice. “For these reasons, the chance of an incident similar to MS Explorer is much less, but not impossible.”

The company also constantly reports its activities to NORDREG, both pre-season and continuously during operations North of Sixty. “They also send us regular notices and routing suggestions. In case of emergency, they would deploy icebreakers, any other cargo or passengers ships which may be in the area, as well as community-based boats as appropriate.”

For Northerners worried that hordes of cruise ships will someday crowd Arctic waters, there is some good news. Dianne Draper says she doesn’t anticipate a large increase in Arctic-cruise tourism. Numbers are small to start with and there’s already some evidence of an overall decline in numbers in the Hudson Bay area. She attributes the decline to the reduction in sea ice and consequently of ice-supported wildlife, which is a prime attraction for most Arctic cruise tourists. Polar bears, seals and walrus are seen less and less. “While there may be some ‘last chance’ tourism taking place, how long this will last appears to be a function of the presence of ice-related landscapes, sea ice and icedependent wildlife like polar bears and walrus.”

She suggests that if cruise lines are able to shift to other land-based environmental, historical and cultural assets, in both Hudson Bay and the high Arctic, the numbers of cruise vessels and tours may stabilize or increase. “Mounting evidence that the Arctic region will continue to warm at a higher average rate than the rest of the globe should spark concern that in the long term, the wildlife and ice-scapes that are the very basis of Arctic expedition cruising may be under threat,” she says.

Still, Wells believes it will continue, and the risks are worth taking. “Passenger ships have a very good safety record, even taking into consideration recent incidents in Antarctica,” he says. He reemphasizes the role of the Arctic cruise industry as ambassadors. “They carry an important message home about the environment and Inuit culture,” he says. “I believe this is very important to the Inuit. Any risk there may be is well balanced.”

Draper isn’t so sure. “Cruise tourism doesn’t bring in a lot of money,” she says. “There are too many unknowns and the business is too new yet – there are still lots of lessons to be learned as to how to do it well.”

Risk vs Reward

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