The MS National Geographic Explorer discovers a polar bear.
The Birth OF AN Economy Amid Disappearing Ice
[Feature published in Quartz — October 2018]
The Arctic is indeed funny. There is ice and ocean. And in binoculars, off-white specs can expand into marine mammals. But a visit by ship also yields unexpected sights: flowery pastures, cliffs of crumbly sediment and pillowy moss, fossilized shells from ancient warm water, and vacationers.
That’s right. Vacationers.
Moved by Conan Doyle’s writing or simply because our changing polar landscapes warrant witness, travelers are storming Arctic regions on a staggering scale. In 2016-17’s Northern summer, Greenland brought in a record 110,000 visitors, while Norway’s Svalbard archipelago brought in 145,000—many by cruise ship. Tourism in Nunavut, Canada quintupled between 2011 and 2016. This past April, Greenland formally added tourism as an economic pillar, alongside fishing and mining.
More ships. Massive ships. In 2016, Crystal Serenity, a 1,070-person cruise ship, sunk records as history’s largest passenger vessel to traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage. The ship went again in 2017. In 2020, Crystal will launch a fleet of expedition-style ships capable of regular Arctic journeys. If Glacier Bay, Alaska is any benchmark, Arctic cruising is still in its infancy. In 2016, 95% of Glacier Bay’s 485,000 visitors arrived on commercial cruising vessels. The demand is so great that Princess Cruises expanded its 2017 Alaska fleet by 15%, while Seabourn returned to the Last Frontier for the first time in over a decade.
The boreal opportunity for cruise companies is as much existential as it is economic. Having people see and understand our polar oceans can change how we see ourselves. Before Conan Doyle ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes, he wrote about the Arctic. His memories of northern seas would linger for years and brought about a handful of short stories set in the Arctic. He’d credit his Arctic experiences as having changed him into a writer. "It has certainly been a splendid voyage," Conan Doyle wrote. "Beautiful day, wonderfully clear. Icefields, snow white on very dark blue water as far as the eye can reach."
As ice disappears, luxury cruises are taking on history’s most treacherous ocean.
Polar Tourism By The Numbers
Modern expedition cruising was pioneered by Lars-Eric Lindblad. In 1966 he led the first tourist expedition to Antarctica, and in 1984 his namesake company’s Lindblad Explorer became the first passenger expedition across Canada’s Northwest Passage. For veteran operators like Lindblad, expedition is preferred nomenclature over cruise, and explorer over tourist.
The distinctions are primarily a marketing plug, but Arctic journeys are necessarily less structured than conventional cruises, and they tend to offer ecology lectures alongside open bars. Bob Haulter, an expedition die-hard, who along with his wife, has been on 25 Lindblad expeditions, including five Arctic voyages, compromises on how he sees himself: "We settled on calling ourselves explorerists... This isn’t roughing anything. But I’m not here for the top-notch cappuccinos... I just like standing on deck all day, looking for something I haven’t already seen, or would love another sight of. Like if I could just get another glimpse of a bowhead up here."
"There’re always birds and pinnipeds, but it’s hard to promise much else. We can’t control what the Arctic will give us," says Russ Evans, Expedition Leader of Lindblad’s 2018 voyage up Greenland and across Canada’s Highlands. Nearly every polar cruise pamphlet depicts a polar bear on its cover, Evans notes, but on some voyages, passengers won’t see a single bear, and rarely does anyone see a narwhal.
"Or you get lucky as hell and see a bear eating a narhwal," says Evans, referencing the afternoon’s feature event.
"That was one in a billion," says Bud Lehnhausen standing beside Evans. Lehnhausen is a research biologist who’s worked for Lindblad since 1983. "I keep emphasizing for everyone just how absolutely privileged we are... Of all 3,000 or 4,000 days our staff has collectively spent up here, I doubt anyone has ever before seen a polar bear hauling a narwhal by its tusk."
Lehnhausen and Evans figuratively high-five via knowing smiles.
Expedition ships like The Explorer aren’t your average cruiseliner. They’re smaller, polar-class ships, usually with a passenger capacity around 100-150. Larger ships struggle in icy seas. The 1,070 passenger Crystal Serenity, for example, had to charter a British polar-class escort during its Northwest Passage voyages.
There are 36 polar expedition vessels currently in service with at least 14 on order for voyage by 2022, including polar regulars like Lindblad and conglomerates like Crystal moving into expedition cruising. But as ice disappears, jumbo liners are joining in. In 2019, Princess Cruises will have several cruises passing by Antarctica, one stopping in Greenland, and one stopping in Svalbard. Its Antarctica-bound ship has a passenger capacity of 1,970, while its Arctic-bound ship carries 826. The ships’ sizes significantly limit where such voyages can go, but offer a distinct advantage over smaller competitors like Lindblad. A 14-day Lindblad Antarctica expedition costs between $15,000 and $30,000 per berth, while Princess’ mass market version can cost as little as $3,500.
The catch: IAATO, Antarctica’s self-regulating cruise operator organization, forbids ships carrying over 500 passengers from actually landing. You’ll see Antarctica from sea, but don’t expect any selfies among penguins. Things will only get stricter because Antarctica has just a few areas where landings are physically possible. To limit crowds and safeguard ecosystems, smaller ships may soon only be allowed to land once per day.
The Arctic, however, remains a bit of a free for all, explains Lehnhausen, who helped form IAATO’s northern counterpart, AECO, in 2003. "Antarctica only has a few spots we can physically land. Svalbard, however, has plenty of landings."
While Svalbard has well-developed Arctic routes, Greenland is actively expanding access and Canada is gradually opening up waters around Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories for visitors. Canada remains a challenging destination for Arctic cruises due to cautious regulations and arduous customs processes involving Canadian Coast Guard, province officials, and Inuit representatives.
Though Lindblad hosts a handful of expeditions to Franz Josef Land and Wrangel Island every year, Russia’s Arctic regions are even less developed than Canada’s, but that’s due to change. Barentsberg (Russia’s settlement in Svalbard), for example, has been actively repurposing its defunct mining facilities into hotels. Moscow is also hoping to develop Northern Russian routes with help from a surprising final player: China. Despite being a non-Arctic state, China is increasingly active in polar areas. The country became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. Beijing announced plans in January for an Arctic extension of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials have been actively scouting Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia for shipping routes and cruise destinations.
Watch a time lapse journey through a Baffin Island fjord.
There are plenty of luxury-seekers on Arctic cruises, and many looking for another check after seeing Antarctica. Others simply seek escape into one of Earth’s few remaining wildernesses. We often forget Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins and ends in the Arctic. Dr. Frankenstein boards a North Pole-bound ship in pursuit of his monster, who flees as far as he can from humanity’s cruelty.
Still, many visitors are drawn northward by a sense of urgency. They want to witness polar landscapes and endangered megafauna before it’s all lost. The announcement of a polar bear, cetacean, or pinniped will send passengers scurrying above deck, binoculars and DSLRs in-hand. Ice itself is a sight to behold: glaciers, icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers scatter across vast fjords and volcanic ridges. A NatGeo photographer sailing with Lindblad describes one fjord along Baffin Island as "Yosemite on steroids."
The Arctic looks quite different from when Roald Amundsen first crossed it in 1906. There is alarmingly less ice, making previously arduous or impossible routes suddenly feasible in non-icebreakers. Russia’s Northeast Passage now supports a steady summer shipping season, while Northwest Passage crossings are no longer a high-risk operation requiring years of navigation and scores of sacrificed sailors. Haulter notes just how quickly everything is changing: "This year, Lindblad was in Svalbard by May 15. Just eight years ago, when I was there, Svalbard’s season started June 15. In just eight years, everything’s moved up an entire month. The ice is melting faster."
The Infrastructure Gap
The busiest stretch of Greenland’s longest road runs 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) between Kangerlussuaq Airport and a rusting single-dock harbor where nearly all Greenland and Canadian Arctic cruises begin. Kangerlussuaq is itself incidental. The 500 person settlement is far inland, away from fog and wind, and hosts Greenland’s only airstrip capable of supporting a jumbo jet. If you’re visiting Greenland, you’re inevitably stopping there. In 2018’s Arctic season, 30 Arctic cruises departed from Kangerlussuaq, up from about 20 just five years ago, per a local stevedore. The stevedore hired a few dozen extra seasonal dockhands from Denmark just to accommodate demand from cruise operators in 2018.
Establishing an Arctic cruise industry isn’t without challenges. Greenland lacks simple infrastructure for its population of only 56,000. The island has no roads connecting its 17 settlements. But the island is quickly building up for a greater influx of visitors. At a cost of about 3.6 billion Danish crowns ($595 million), domestic runways in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and tourist must-see, Ilulissat, are being extended so both are long enough for international airliners. The country, like all Arctic countries, has seen an unabated influx of cruise ships in recent years. Mining facilities in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg in Svalbard are being converted into lodges and restaurants. Southeast Alaska has been widening ports for its burgeoning number of cruises. Finland is building a railway across Lapland.
Lack of infrastructure is one challenge. Ice is another. In 1972, one of Lindblad’s ships ran aground in Antarctica—its passengers, including Lars-Eric Lindblad himself, were rescued by Chile’s Navy. In 2007, another ice-class ship bound for Antarctica struck an iceberg. The ship evacuated all 91 passengers and 63 crew members onto lifeboats until a Norwegian ship arrived five hours and 36 minutes after mayday was issued. The ship was fully submerged by day’s end. In 2012, an Arctic cruise vessel stalled in ice, requiring passenger evacuation onto a Canadian icebreaker, luckily just a few hours away. In 2013, a Russian research vessel was locked in Antarctic ice for 10 days, and a Chinese icebreaker attempting rescue also got stuck.
"There will be incidents, and our current fleet of icebreakers isn’t equipped," explains a reserve Canadian Coast Guard Captain contracted by Lindblad. Lindblad’s Arctic expeditions enlist local guides, polar engineering crews, and often off-duty Arctic region coast guard officials. The ice is lessening, but there’s still ice; polar cruising isn’t without risk.
"Sometimes ice charts aren’t so accurate, especially if it’s been foggy for a few days," says Aaron Woods, Captain of The Explorer. Woods pulls up an ice chart of Baffin Bay on a screen and hovers over a patch of green markings. "This green ice isn’t so hard. I was quite excited, thinking we could go through and I could show you what this ship is built for. But then the Canadian Coast Guard said, 'Nuh-uh. Go around.' So we went around. We were very well behaved."
Canada has just four icebreakers in its eastern provinces, one of which is a science vessel. The country recently ordered three more from Sweden. The US government has just one polar icebreaker in service. As ice breaks apart, Arctic countries are entering a race for Northern Ocean control, and icebreakers will be a determinant in who wins.
The bottom-line for emerging Arctic industries—shipping, fishing, extractives, and cruises—is engendering rapid construction of icebreakers worldwide, but a gap remains. Operators will either avoid challenging ice when an icebreaker isn’t close by, or invest in polar class vessels themselves. Lindblad’s soon-to-sail MS National Geographic Endurance will have a PC 5 polar class rating. This will give Lindblad a leg up in accessing less crowded polar regions, and could serve as a critical differentiator against cruise conglomerates. Lindblad has a second expedition ship on order, and a third optioned.
From old glaciers to new infrastructure, here's a glimpse of life around Greenland.
The Ecologists's Dilemma
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty was amended in 1991 with stricter guidelines that designated Antarctica as a "natural reserve dedicated to peace and science." That year, seven expedition operators formed IAATO as a self-regulating body for reconciling expedition best practices with Treaty standards. In 2003, AECO was formed with similar goals for Arctic operators. The Norwegian government planned to close Svalbard’s western islands for dedicated scientific research. Lehnhausen, along with representatives from other operators, enacted strict self-regulations on commercial expedition operators, hoping Norway would reconsider. Norway did, and AECO eventually grew into a regulatory body for all Arctic regions, which, unlike Antarctica, includes four million inhabitants, including 220,000 indigenous peoples from groups like Canada’s Inuit or Norway’s Saami.
AECO recommendations include spreading visitors across various regions, keeping safe distance from wildlife, recording archaeological erosion, disallowing picking or purchase of flora or fauna products, practicing safe waste removal (Lindblad sorts waste 18 ways), decontaminating boots, having visitors collect any found litter, and reporting on ice or wildlife conditions. "For example," says Lehnhausen, "if we see a deceased polar bear, we call the governor and they come pick it up to do an autopsy." In certain parts of Canada, regulations require visitors walk beside one another, instead of in a line, so desire paths don’t permanently warp vegetation or disturb permafrost. Similar regulations govern relations with indigenous groups. Operators pay by head when visiting Inuit settlements, and certain indigenous archaeologists sites can only be visited with an licensed anthropologist in attendance.
Incorporating AECO’s fine requirements for environmental and cultural preservation is challenging, but veteran Arctic operators are largely already involved in and passionate about conservation and cultural preservation. Lindblad’s expedition crew includes geologists, ornithologists, glaciologists, climatologists, anthropologists, biologists, and countless other ologists—some PhD’ed, some amateur. They come from locations best described by extreme latitudes. They act as an ad hoc resource for guests, delivering lectures during long stretches at sea.
"A guest might wonder why that bear was so desperate to pull that narwhal on to those slippery rocks," says Haulter. "They might wonder why the bear won’t just keep his catch right there. The naturalists are right there beside you to tell you why."
After a pause, Haulter shares the explanation he heard: "Tides."
Not every operator is Lindblad. Some conglomerates are simply bringing 10-deck super ships with heated pools and few actual researchers. Others are becoming Lindblad-like. After underbooking its 2017 Northwest Passage cruise, Crystal began investing in smaller, expedition-style ships, which will give Crystal access in areas larger ships aren’t allowed or can’t physically reach.
The 140-passenger Explorer burned 180 kilograms of fuel over 2,004 nautical miles, or roughly 1,375 liters per passenger (an average American uses 1,892 liters of motor gasoline per year). Held accountable by its ecologically-passionate customers, Lindblad was very proactive in keeping guests aware of fuel use and emissions. Tours can offer carbon offset options. Some operators recently unveiled hybrid electric-petroleum-powered expedition ships, which reduce fuel consumption by 20%. A recent OECD report found use of biofuels could yield full decarbonization in shipping by 2035. Others are looking into wind, fuel cell, and LNG-powered ships in an effort to at least hit a UN goal of 50% emission reduction in shipping by 2050. There’s precedent for hitting such ambitious goals: Many cruise companies have already hit 2020 IMO mandates to reduce sulfur content in maritime fuel from 3.5% to 0.5%.
As more passenger ships enter polar waters, AECO is more keenly focused on zeroing human impact on land. Whether cruise conglomerates can achieve an equivalent level of sustainability as smaller operators will ultimately dictate polar cruising’s future. The heightening competition may make good environmental records a key marketing advantage, while quelling concerns from AECO and Arctic governments.
The Overview Effect
The big, proclaimed offset for operators, however, is in cultivating conservationism. Lindblad prohibits expedition staff from politicizing environmental issues onboard, but such issues are still openly discussed and belie nearly every experience. The Arctic remains a place only a small, privileged percent of people can visit. For Lindblad, Arctic ambassadorship involves having passengers share experiences and knowledge with communities back home. To that end, polar expeditions regularly host educators (freely), heads of state, philanthropist, scientists, CEOs, documentarians, and nearly always a retired astronaut, including Apollo 11’s Second Man himself, who went straight for the South Pole.
The presence of astronauts isn’t coincidental. Before space, our polar regions were considered our Final Frontiers. Shackleton and Amundsen are very much precursors for our first people in space. Our poles are hostile non-human environments just like space. And astronauts, if not already climatologists, gain a heightened appreciation for climate as Earth’s cloudy surface swirls below.
In space, astronauts often describe experiencing an "overview effect" which is a cognitive shift experienced when seeing Earth firsthand and whole—small, breakable, and alone. It’s a humbling feeling. Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut recently riding with Lindblad describes her Arctic visits as distantly similar.
"Spaceflight is not the only grand or challenging experience that can take you out of yourself and alter your perspective on your life and place in the universe, though it is perhaps the most exotic and popularly celebrated such experience. I also think the perspective shift is not due solely to seeing another scene or landscape, but also to experiencing everything it took to get to that unique place," Sullivan explains.
The Arctic is home for innumerable organisms, including millions of people whose livelihood is often obscured behind binary politicking. For its inhabitants, simply being understood is paramount. When The Explorer stops in one of Nunavut's northernmost settlements, Pond Inlet, a young local named AJ notices passengers’ cameras and asks one gentleman what he’ll do with his photos. The passenger says he’ll show them to everyone he knows.
The boy expresses concern for his community being forgotten. "Please capture everything," he says.