Thanks to climate change, a giant cruise ship is charging through the once-unnavigable Northwest Passage, bringing an unprecedented number of tourists to remote Arctic communities for the first time.
After slipping through the Dolphin Straight—a dangerous and narrow channel that has only been charted in recent decades—the Crystal Serenity cruise ship docked on Monday in Cambridge Bay, a hamlet of about 1,500 people in Canada's Nunavut territory, where hundreds of eager tourists were shuttled to shore.
Groups of 200 people swarmed the hamlet on the hour, every hour, throughout the day, taking photos, asking questions, watching drum dances and buying souvenirs, according to a stressed-out staffer at the Arctic Coast Visitors Centre. The cruisers paid between $22,000 and $120,000 for cabins on board the ship.
While the cruise ship—the largest ever to navigate the treacherous passage—has been welcomed by local politicians touting its economic benefits, climate scientists and environmental groups have hailed it as a harbinger of a rapidly melting Arctic, and say it will encourage fleets of cruises to follow.
The unforgiving Northwest Passage, which famously defeated the British Franklin expedition in the 1840s, leading to the deaths of 129 men including their captain Sir John Franklin, is now a shortcut for ships seeking to cross North America, and saw its first ice-free summer in 2007. Since then, cruise companies have eyed the channel for its tourism potential.
Laverna Klengenberg, mayor of Ulukhaktok, the hamlet the cruise recently left, was overjoyed with the ship's visit. "It's wonderful," she told CBC. "People have been drum dancing, preparing their traditional clothing, doing arts and crafts, taking training to be tour guides and whatnot. So it's been quite busy, so we're happy to see that."
In an email to VICE News, Crystal Cruises said the two stops made so far on the historic voyage have been successful, and touted the "extremely positive feedback" from guests and the Inuit community.
Crystal Serenity's 900 passengers will land next in Pond Inlet, a small Inuit community of 1,500 people on Baffin Island, where tourists will be treated to views of the stunning fjords Dennis Nutarak sees every day.
Nutarak, a local hunter, can't wait to see the ship.
"I want to see it, of course," the hunter told VICE News. About 20 ships come through Pond Inlet each year, but this is by far the biggest ship to ever visit, prompting curiosity from locals, he said.
While the cruise line has touted the voyage's economic benefits, Nutarak doesn't expect it to have a huge economic impact because tourists who visit his community don't actually buy many souvenirs — though they do pay to see local performances.
He said he will welcome any giant cruises that follow the Crystal Serenity, noting that he doesn't think they will harm the mammals he hunts, including seals and narwhal.
He also said he wasn't worried about climate change just yet because he hasn't noticed any dramatic changes, other than strange weather at times, more humid and dry lakes, and sea ice that is more brittle than it was before.
Unlike the hunter, environmental groups are up in arms about the cruise, with the World Wildlife Fund calling it a high-risk, unsustainable voyage.
"It's because the Arctic is in meltdown that this cruise can take place," WWF Polar Program Manager Rod Downie said in a statement. "This year we saw the sea ice crash to a record low for June as it continued its downward spiral. The loss of sea ice is bad news for Arctic species like polar bears, walrus and narwhal, and for Arctic people."
"This voyage symbolizes the risk of large scale cruise ships operating in the Arctic. The unique wildlife is already stressed by a warming climate and the loss of sea ice, and the arrival of a mega cruise ship in this part of the world could push it further toward the edge."
But it's not clear what environmental impact the cruise will have. Crystal Cruises applied to the Nunavut Impact Review Board for permission to chart the course, and last week the board gave the go-ahead, saying it was "unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental and social impacts." That's despite numerous concerns flagged by Canada's federal government and Nunavut's own department of environment, including the ship's potential to collide with swimming polar bears, and its impact on the sea ice.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont