A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Crystal Catastrophe Cruise

What do you call a luxury cruise ship with 1,070 people on board, paying up to $120,000 each for a trip through the once-impenetrable Northwest Passage of the Arctic Circle?

Call it disaster tourism, defined as “the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity.” Or, as climate scientists increasingly call it, extinction tourism.

After all, it’s only because the ice is now melting at an exponential rate that a ship like this can even make it through at all.

And what do you call the kind of person who chooses to go on such a cruise – one that’s only possible in the first place thanks to the ecological and wildlife catastrophe that’s unfolding there?

This week, the Crystal Serenity set sail from Anchorage, Alaska, on a 32-day trip through the Northwest Passage, across to Greenland, and down to New York.

To ensure the safety of the passengers, the Canadian and American Coast Guards are overseeing the trip. They have already conducted practice evacuation scenarios in case of an emergency.

rss-ernest-shackleton“I don’t want a repeat of the Titanic,” Admiral Charles D. Michel, vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard told reporters in Anchorage.

For added safety, the ship is being accompanied by the British RRS Ernest Shackleton icebreaker and two iceberg-spotting helicopters.

The Shackleton spends most of its time carrying out support work for British Antarctic Survey missions, and many scientists are appalled that it’s allowing itself to be chartered for a disaster cruise.

“There is a significant tension between the science and environmental mission of the Shackleton and its participation in an exercise in tourism that has an enormous per capita carbon footprint,” Prof. Michael Byers of the University of B.C. told the BBC.

The U.S. Department of Defense is also holding a five-day training exercise during the cruise to prepare for the possibility of a massive Arctic rescue operation. (Your tax dollars at work!)

The cruise company promises “unprecedented adventures and unsurpassed luxury” as you “follow in the footsteps of intrepid explorers.”

At one port of call, you can “ride a wheeled sled pulled by a team of 12 spry and intelligent dogs.” “I don’t want a repeat of the Titanic.”

At others, you can visit Inuit villages whose populations are smaller than the number of people on the cruise.

And in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, you can visit the High Arctic Research Station, whose mission is to study the effects of climate change.

But don’t let the reality of climate change disturb your “experience.” Back on board, you can relax at the Feng Shui-inspired Crystal Spa; take a class in digital filmmaking, learn how to play the piano, or attend a talk about art, history and worldly destinations “with our engaging celebrity entertainers and speakers.”

Those 21 engaging lecturers include marine biologists and climatologists, but no worries, they’re unlikely to say anything upsetting. Climatologists with a conscience were quick to turn down the invitation. Among these was Prof. Byers again:

“This voyage is a significant contribution to climate change by people who are going to see an ecosystem before it is destroyed by climate change. I find that irony quite terrible,” he said.

After the feel-good climatology lecture, it’s back to yoga, golf, the jewelry boutique, or just relaxing poolside while “an attentive crew caters to your every whim” until it’s time go to your stateroom to dress for dinner (black tie optional).

After all, as the Crystal Serenity blurb explains, “Today is all about you.”

So again, what kind of a person goes on a cruise like this? New York Times reporter Karen Schwartz interviewed two of the passengers, Susan and Jay Pendleton, who paid $90,000 for the experience. (At $45k each, that’s low-to-mid-range since tickets range from $22k to $120k per person, double occupancy.)

“This to us was kind of a bucket list thing,” Mrs. Pendleton said. “I’d love to see a walrus before I die.”


Crystal isn’t the first company to offer a cruise through the Northwest Passage. In 1984, the small Lindblad Explorer made it through with 148 passengers. But in 2010, the Clipper Adventure ran aground on an underwater cliff, and it took an icebreaker 40 hours to evacuate the 120 passengers. (The Crystal Serenity is carrying about 10 times that number.)

Like the other passengers, the Pendletons had to purchase $50,000-worth of evacuation insurance. But Mrs. P. wasn’t worried about things going wrong.

“There are plenty of lifeboats on board,” she said.

She and other passengers were more worried about the possibility of protests at ports of call along the way. Environmental groups are disturbed by the growing exploitation of the increasingly ice-free Arctic, and Crystal Cruises has a less-than-stellar safety record. The company’s ships have been banned from the Port of Monterey in California since 2003 for discharging treated wastewater within its National Marine Sanctuary. In 2001, the Serenity was in trouble for excessive smokestack emissions off the coast of Juneau. And in 2009, it was fined for discharging ash off the coast of Croatia.

This time, however, Crystal says it’s going above and beyond environmental requirements by using low-sulphur fuel in order to reduce (but not eliminate) the soot that ends up on the ice, turning it dark and causing it to melt even faster. Crystal has also pledged not to dump sewage within 12 miles of shore.

With all these reassurances and the reduced likelihood of protests, Mrs. P. and her conscience-impaired travelers should be suitably insulated from anything that might cause them to reflect on what they’re doing.

. . . Not to mention what they could be doing with their money instead. At an average cost per ticket ($22,000 to $120,000) of $50,000, and 1,000+ people on board, we’re talking about somewhere north of $50 million being spent on this one disaster cruise alone.

Imagine what that kind of money could have done to protect the animals on Mrs. P.’s bucket list.

Instead, as she told the NY Times, she was trying to decide “which sparkly outfits to wear” to the black-tie-optional dinners, and buying new binoculars in hopes of seeing a narwhal and a polar bear.

“We want to see the things before they’re gone,” she said.