All aboard: Cruise through the once-impassable Northwest Passage

A luxury cruiseliner is making history by sailing through the once-impassable Northwest Passage. The Crystal Serenity will be the largest passenger ship to successfully navigate the frigid Arctic waterway between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Historic efforts to conquer the Northwest Passage have been described as “voyages of delusion,” but in recent years, global warming has drastically altered the landscape, reports CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg.

It’s been smooth sailing so far, as the Crystal Serenity glides through the once ice-choked waters of the Canadian Arctic. But Capt. Birger Vorland and his crew have spent years planning this voyage.

“People said ‘Really, you’re doing that?!’ … People [have been] trying to find that route for centuries. It was very difficult because this area is frozen over with ice for most of the year,” Vorland said.

One doomed expedition from the 1800s was recently discovered decaying on the ocean floor -- a reminder of the many lives lost in the name of exploration. In 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage successfully. It took him three years.

ctm-0902-northwest-passage-cruise.jpg

Crystal Serenity  

The Crystal Serenity will do it in less than 32 days because as times have changed, so has our climate.

Ice cover has receded dramatically since satellites started keeping a continuous record. NASA calls it “the new normal.”

“There is climate change, there’s no doubt about that,” Vorland said. “The temperatures are higher, the ice melts more, and a small window in the late summer has now developed where it’s navigable, probably for two, three, four, five weeks a year.”

But the captain has left little to chance. The luxury cruise liner is accompanied by an ice-breaking boat and two helicopters.

“We have put on a lot of new equipment on the ship. We have a forward looking sonar,” Vorland said. “We have thermal imaging…One dedicated ice radar and an ice nav system.”

“If you think of a piece of ice the size of a Volkswagen that’s sitting just below the surface, you need those search lights to help you see it,” said Jeff Hutchinson, deputy commissioner with the Canadian coast guard. 

He’s monitoring the 900-hundred mile journey.

“With an appropriate level of planning, with an appropriate level of judgment, with the right experience around you, it can be done safely, it can be done successfully. But make no mistake: this isn’t sailing a cruise ship out of Miami,” Hutchinson said.

Roughly 1,000 passengers each paid a minimum of $22,000 for the privilege. Crystal said the entire cruise sold out in just 48 hours. So is it worth it?

“I guess all I could say is, if I could afford it, I’d certainly be interested,” Hutchinson said.

The route goes through the Bering Strait, north of the Arctic Circle, taking the ship to polar bear territory and remote villages that have seen few outsiders.

“When we first heard about it, we thought it was tremendous. It was something in an area where so few people will ever go,” one passenger said. “It’s great to read about it, it’s great to watch it on a video or in a movie, but seeing it for yourself is very special.” 

But critics question the potential cost to this untouched region. The World Wildlife Fund told CBS News that while the Serenity “has done some things right,” “we do not have the rules necessary to reduce risks to wildlife and people…nor the capacity and 
infrastructure needed to respond to accidents.”

“It would be ironic if tourism promoting a chance to see Arctic wildlife before it disappears actually hastens that disappearance,” they added. 

“We will be doing everything we possibly can to minimize any impact whatever. We are burning very high-grade fuel to minimize the air emissions. We’re taking all our garbage with us, we’re not going to offload anything,” Vorland said.

“They’ve got to go into the Arctic knowing that it’s one of the world’s great pristine environments, and they owe it to themselves, to the people who live there, and to all of earth’s inhabitants to protect that environment,” Hutchinson said. “It’s hubris and humility. … A little bit of humility goes a long way in these conditions.”

The ship is scheduled to arrive here in New York on Sept. 16. The cruise company is already booking tickets for 2017, but that’s weather permitting.

Another cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, scheduled its own Northwest Passage cruise next year, but just canceled because weather experts are saying patterns indicate there will be too much ice.