SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A luxury cruise ship is headed through the Arctic Ocean on a first-of-its-kind voyage from Alaska to New York City. The Crystal Serenity is the largest cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, and as Rachel Waldholz of Alaska Public Media reports, it may be a sign of what's to come as climate change opens the top of the world.
PAUL GARCIA: Tonight we've got a welcome show in our Galaxy Lounge with some special performers.
RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: The Crystal Serenity's Paul Garcia says the ship has 13 decks, eight restaurants, a casino and a spa. State rooms for this trip start at about $20,000 and run as high as $120,000. Sitting in one of those pricey state rooms, passenger Moira Somer's says, for most of the people on board, the ship is as much a destination as the Arctic.
MOIRA SOMERS: When you start your cruise and you see the ship, it's goosebump stuff.
WALDHOLZ: Somers and her husband live in Victoria, British Columbia, and they are regular cruisers. But this time is different.
SOMERS: Maybe we're not so sure what we're letting ourselves in for, but there's so much we've read, so much we've prepared ourselves and we know it's a big thing.
WALDHOLZ: Until about a decade ago, the Northwest Passage could only be reliably navigated, even in the summer, by ships with icebreaking capabilities. But a warming Arctic has meant increasingly ice-free summers. And while smaller cruise ships have visited the region for years, the Crystal Serenity, with more than 1,600 guests and crew, is by far the biggest. It's a dry run for large-scale tourism in a region that hasn't seen anything quite like it. The man in charge is not concerned.
BIRGER VORLAND: I am Captain Birger Vorland, the master of Crystal Serenity.
WALDHOLZ: Vorland has spent 38 years at sea. Originally from Norway, he says the Northwest Passage has special meaning.
VORLAND: My countryman, Roald Amundsen, did the first transit here between 1903 and 1906. We're going to do it in 32 days and in a lot more comfort.
WALDHOLZ: Standing on the navigation bridge, Vorland ticks off the special preparations for the trip - systems to detect ice, two Canadian Ice Pilots to assist him, an escort ship in case he runs into trouble.
VORLAND: We have crossed all the t's, dotted all the i's. Nobody has ever planned a cruise as diligently and as detailed as Crystal Cruises has done for this particular voyage.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our crew members will now demonstrate the correct way to put on your life jacket.
WALDHOLZ: As the ship gets ready to leave Seward, Alaska, there's an emergency drill. In the casino, guests wearing life jackets gather around a sign that reads Lifeboat 6. Despite Captain Vorland's assurances, plenty of people are worried about what happens if this scenario plays out in real life. Elena Agarkova tracks shipping for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group.
ELENA AGARKOVA: There's absolutely no capacity to respond to accidents.
WALDHOLZ: She says there's very little search-and-rescue infrastructure in the region, a major concern for authorities. Some of the communities it's visiting have populations smaller than the ship itself. Agarkova points out the question isn't just whether the Crystal Serenity is ready for the Arctic but if the Arctic is ready for the Crystal Serenity.
AGARKOVA: The main reason why this ship is able to go up to Northwest Passage is climate change. The melting of the Arctic ice, which is threatening the very wildlife that this cruise ship is promising to its passengers.
WALDHOLZ: That tension isn't lost on passenger Moira Somers.
SOMERS: One kind of feels - I won't say guilty, but you're taking advantage of what is happening.
WALDHOLZ: Somers hopes the cruise is drawing attention to climate change. As for her more immediate goals...
SOMERS: My big dream is to see a polar bear.
WALDHOLZ: The Crystal Serenity will arrive in New York City on September 16. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Waldholz in Anchorage.
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SIMON: That report comes from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration that's focused on energy and the environment.
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