The seabirds of the Davis Strait aren’t used to the sound of gunfire. When shots echoed across the water on a cold, bright August afternoon, the circling gulls hardly reacted to the unfamiliar racket — there was no alarmed screeching or sudden flapping of wings. Instead, the birds kept gliding calmly above the narrow white ship in their midst, lifted by invisible currents.
Below them, on the stern deck of the Akademik Ioffe, a half-dozen men swathed in down and Gore-Tex stood in a loose semi-circle, each of them with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun slung over a shoulder. The Ioffe is a Finnish-built, Russian-owned scientific research vessel turned cruise-ship-for-hire, 383 feet long and home to 102 passengers, 60-odd tour staff and sailing crew, a dining room, a bar, a library, a gift shop, a medical clinic, a modest gym, a sauna, and an open-air hot tub. Tomorrow it would reach the eastern edge of Canada’s remote Arctic Archipelago. From there, the little white ship would spend the next eight days cruising west through the ice-crusted waterways of the infamous Northwest Passage. Every time the Ioffe’s passengers made landfall on a new Arctic island, they would be preceded by an armed escort. You don’t take chances in polar bear country.
Jimmy MacDonald, a trained hydrologist and guide who had delivered a talk to the passengers on the science of sea-ice formation the day before, aimed his shotgun at the water off the stern and unloaded five shots in quick, rhythmic succession: BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG. The ocean swallowed each slug within seconds, the expanding ripples erased by the waves.
By the 19th century, the search for the Northwest Passage had become an obsession in Britain. Expeditions ventured out for years at a time, and the survivors returned with horror stories of scurvy and starvation, madness and death.
If live-fire target practice isn’t quite what you’d expect on board a cruise ship under sail, that’s fitting — Canada’s Arctic waters are not your usual tourist destination. But a growing number of small cruise ships are heading to the region each year, and the Northwest Passage — the fabled waterway that for centuries claimed hundreds of explorers’ lives — is an especially powerful draw.
The Northwest Passage isn’t one singular route. It’s the collective name given to a series of seasonally navigable sounds and straits that wind their way between the 36,563 islands of the Arctic Archipelago, connecting the eastern waters of the Davis Strait to the western Beaufort Sea. The islands make up one of the wildest and most remote regions on Earth: Their 540,000 square miles — nearly the size of Mongolia — are home to fewer than 20,000 people. Most of the islands form part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, which in 1999 gained independence from its older, western neighbor, the Northwest Territories. Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut, the traditional language of the region, and its creation was the product of decades of land claim negotiations between Inuit leaders and the Canadian government in Ottawa.
The Inuit culture is ancient, but Nunavut is a young jurisdiction: People there say they’ve hurtled “from igloo to Internet” within the last 50 years. The growing number of cruise ships making their way to the territory sell their passengers on the region’s thrilling history, its dramatic wildlife, and its people’s longstanding traditions. But the ships are arriving in communities that have seen — and continue to see — changes occurring at an almost unfathomable rate.
The Ioffe and its passengers, with their matching red rain suits, bazooka- sized camera lenses, and armed guards, would get the chance to witness — and embody — some of those changes.
Not at all a navigable waterway at the time, the Northwest Passage began its life as speculation, a bit of wishful thinking. For European monarchs and merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries, the newly “discovered” Americas presented a problem: They were an unexpected obstacle, one whose immense size was not yet fully known, falling square between the ports of Europe and the riches of the Orient. (The construction of the Panama Canal was centuries away.) And so the era’s geographers, who traded in theories at least as often as they did in maps and surveys, posited a theoretical solution: a Northwest Passage, running over the top of North America, and its twin, a Northeast Passage atop Scandinavia and Russia.
To be clear: There was no physical evidence known to Europeans at the time to suggest that the Northwest Passage actually existed. For them, its existence was logical, and necessary — therefore, they reasoned, it must exist. Since it must exist, it was discoverable — and it therefore had to be discovered. The English were at the forefront of these searches, with Martin Frobisher and John Davis setting out in the 16th century, Henry Hudson and William Baffin in the 17th, and James Cook in the 18th. None of them found what they were seeking; all that’s left of their time in the North American Arctic are their names: Frobisher Bay, Davis Strait, Hudson Bay, Baffin Island, Cook Inlet.
By the 19th century, the search for the Northwest Passage had become a national obsession in Britain. Expeditions ventured out for years at a time, and the survivors returned with horror stories of scurvy and starvation, madness and death. In the most infamous case, two ships under the command of Sir John Franklin descended into cannibalism before vanishing entirely. In the end it was a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, who successfully completed the first-ever transit of the Northwest Passage, from 1903 to 1906.
After Amundsen’s skin-of-his teeth crossing, the dream of the Northwest Passage as a major shipping route was largely abandoned. Instead of becoming a shortcut to Asia, the Passage has been relegated to a scenic challenge for private yachts and, in recent decades, the occasional hardy cruise ship.
All that is changing now. In 2013, the Nordic Orionbecame the first commercial cargo vessel ever to transit the Northwest Passage, carrying a load of coal. There are several full or partial transits made through the Passage by small cruise ships each year, and in 2016 Crystal Cruises plans to be the first major cruise line to join them. Meanwhile, shipping on either end of the route is increasing even more than the transits of its interior: On its eastern end, the new Baffinland iron mine loaded up its first shipment of ore this past August, while on the western end, the presence of untapped oil in the Beaufort Sea draws more scrutiny, shipping traffic, and controversy each year.
Through all this development, the Passage’s legal status remains contested. (Canada claims it as internal waters; everyone else disagrees.) Ships still face myriad challenges, the lack of port infrastructure or search and rescue capacity along its length not least among them. Even as the ice recedes and thins, nature remains an unpredictable and serious obstacle.
It was with all this uncertainty that the Ioffe set sail from western Greenland in mid-August, under the banner of polar tour company One Ocean Expeditions, pointing its bow across the wide, ice-free swath of the Davis Strait — a body of water that once took an explorer’s crew two months to cross, towing their ship between the bergs in rowboats, or disembarking and manually hauling her through the jam-packed ice on foot. But in 2015, this was an easy two-day sail, ending at the mouth of the Northwest Passage.
Pond Inlet spreads up from the water along a series of low, terraced foothills, one layer of faded bungalows and low-slung government buildings rising above the next. A few dirt roads snake through town, and there are fishing boats pulled up on the gravel shore. ATVs and trucks bounce around the community, and kids on bicycles have the run of the place. Beyond the last building, the bare, treeless wilderness begins, stretching away toward the blue-black shadows of distant mountains.
The predominantly Inuit village (also called Mittimatalik), home to about 1,500 people, takes its English name from the inlet on which it lies: a narrow waterway that divides the northern shore of massive Baffin Island from its smaller, glacier-crusted neighbor. The Ioffe sailed up the inlet and dropped anchor offshore on a bright, snow- dusted August morning, surrounded now by sharp peaks, with the long blue tongues of tidewater glaciers curving down the valleys between them.
None of the villages and towns of Nunavut, known locally as hamlets, are reachable by road. Many of them lie north of the Arctic Circle, and all of them are tiny blips of human settlement in a vast, raw wilderness. In addition to the dearth of roads, there are no telephone wires, fiber-optic cables or pipelines running south. The hamlets run on diesel-generated electricity, the fuel housed in tank farms topped up by a delivery ship that visits during the narrow ice-free window in late August and early September. Satellite and microwave transmissions provide the only access to Internet, television, and landline telephones; cell coverage is just arriving in the larger towns. Bulk goods, like the diesel, arrive by sea, and everything else that fills the grocery stores is flown in by commercial jet at a staggering cost. Hunting and fishing remain primary activities — and up here, that doesn’t just mean four-legged land creatures like caribou; more controversially, that also means marine mammals: seals, whales, and polar bears.
The hamlets don’t look like the towns most visitors know. They don’t operate like the towns most visitors know either. To an outsider, they are fascinating, alien places, filled with jarring, familiar-but-foreign sights: a Barbie doll lying abandoned on the tundra; a polar bear skin draped over a bicycle; a Ford F-150 with a pair of bloodied, severed whale tails poking out of the back.
To the residents, though, the hamlets aren’t fodder for an Instagram post; they’re home. In Pond Inlet, the locals, though friendly, are proactive about reminding their guests of that fact.
The Inuit culture is ancient, but Nunavut is a young jurisdiction: People there say they’ve hurtled “from igloo to Internet” within the last 50 years.
A pamphlet, “Welcome to Pond Inlet,” was distributed in the ship’s cafeteria during breakfast, before the visitors disembarked. Boris Wise, One Ocean’s expedition leader for the voyage, reminded his charges of some basic etiquette over the public announcement system too.
The pamphlet hints at some of the challenges of Arctic tourism:
“We invite you to take pictures of our beautiful scenery and our friendly community, but please ask permission before taking pictures of us, our children, and our homes.”
“We invite you to visit our grocery stores but remember that it takes a lot of effort to fill our shelves with provisions, and fresh items are only re-supplied once a week, weather and flights permitting. So please only purchase what you truly need.”
“If you venture away from the community, enjoy our scenery and local fauna, but remember that our stones and cultural treasures are not souvenirs, they are part of our ancient history so please leave them where they belong!”
Duly warned, the Ioffe’s passengers filed down the narrow gangway into waiting Zodiacs, motored across the water, and hopped ashore on the beach in Pond Inlet, where they were greeted by local guides for a brief walking tour: women in plush brown-and-white sealskin amautis — poncho-like hooded garments with large pouches on the back where infants are sometimes stowed.
The youngest of the women, Alex, a baby-faced 28-year-old with aspirations to become an anthropologist, led her group up the hill, cheerfully fielding questions about life as a young woman in Pond Inlet as she went.
Did she have a boyfriend?
“Almost everyone here is cousins, and I don’t really want to date cousins.” Would she look elsewhere for a husband?
Maybe, but she wasn’t so sure an outsider wouldn’t be terrified by her life here. “I need a man who can hunt.” Alex’s tour wound through town, past two churches — Anglican and Catholic — the Parks Canada office, and the headquarters of the Mittimatalik Hunters & Trappers Organization. A pick-up truck was parked in front of the building. Men came and went, unloading plastic bags laden with fresh-caught, butchered narwhal that would be distributed to the community. Two broad Y-shaped tails sat in the back, gleaming in the sun. “Normally we eat the tails too,” Alex said. “Very crunchy.” Some of the visitors glanced at each other, unsure if she was kidding.
The group stopped in at the Arctic Co-op, one of two chain grocery stores in town, and wandered the aisles, squinting and pointing at price tags: $2.69 for a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, $7.99 for a can of baby corn. Soon it was time for the scheduled cultural performance, and the tourists headed across the street to the community hall, where they would settle into rows of black metal folding chairs. The event began with an Inuktitut rendition of “O Canada,” after which an emcee gave a brief introduction to Pond Inlet: its people, its history, its wildlife. (“There are five species of seal in the Canadian Arctic,” she said. “None of them are endangered.”) Then came demonstrations of traditional Arctic games and feats of strength: the two- foot high kick, the one-arm reach, the knuckle hop. There was singing, drum dancing, and the solemn lighting of a blubber-burning stone lamp by a wrinkled elder.
The throat-singing ended in laughter, two of the women collapsing on each other in giggles. And the visitors, it seemed, were in on the fun.
Karen Nutarak was one of the singers who performed for the passengers. Wearing a long-tailed white amauti and a beaded headband, she sang and laughed with her colleagues while the tourists leaned forward in their seats, cameras clicking.
Nutarak was a teenager when she joined a drama group and began performing for tourists. Now 38, Nutarak, who works at the local community college, continues to perform in the summers. “I love doing it because a lot of our culture is misunderstood,” Nutarak says. “And at least I feel we’re giving out information right from Inuit, not from researchers. We know our culture. So I love doing that.”
Still, even as a veteran of Pond Inlet’s tourism industry, such as it is, she has mixed feelings about the ships. “It doesn’t bring a lot of money into people’s pocket,” she says. “People try to sell their arts and crafts, [but] not a lot are bought.”
In Pond Inlet, the tour companies pay the hamlet government for the welcoming committee, the walking tours, and the cultural performances; and the hamlet government in turn pays the tour guides and performers. Wise and the other guides encourage visitors to consider buying prints, carvings, and crafts while they’re in town. But in a place with so few options for consumerism — where visitors stocking up at the grocery stores could actually harm the community, not help it — making a positive economic impact is a complicated proposition.
“We invite you to take pictures of our beautiful scenery and our friendly community, but please ask permission before taking pictures of us, our children, and our homes.”
“The benefits are quite small,” says Madeleine Redfern, the president of the Ajungi Group, a Nunavut-based consultancy, and a former executive director of Nunavut Tourism. (Redfern also served as the mayor of Iqaluit from 2010 to 2012, and was elected again in 2015.)
“The number of community members who are involved in cruise ship tourism is quite small. So it’s not seen as a particularly large beneficial impact for the community as a whole. What tends to happen is you have a few people who prepare items for sale, women or carvers, you have some throat singers, some drum dancers, some storytellers — so if you actually looked at the number of people who are involved in cruise ship tourism, whether in Cape Dorset, Pond Inlet, Pangnirtung, even in Iqaluit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re looking at probably less than 20 people [in each]. And when a cruise ship unloads its passengers it can be quite a throng of people who descend on the community. It can feel like all of a sudden people are gawking at you.”
But Redfern is confident that, with some groundwork, things can improve. After all, the cruise industry in Nunavut is still “in its developmental phase.” What’s needed, she says, is twofold: better communication between tourism authorities, community members, and the cruise operators themselves; and more information, which comes in the form of data collection and analysis.
“What was the satisfaction of the tourists, and what was the satisfaction of the tourist provider?” Redfern explains, listing the types of questions she’d like to see answered. “Did they sell a lot, and what did people want to buy? Is it a price-point issue for arts and crafts? Is it because the items are made out of sealskin and they can’t be imported because of the [European and American import] ban on marine mammal products?” With better analysis in hand, communities can focus on “making informed decisions, and being strategic about understanding the market, adapting, and really maximizing the benefit” of the visitors’ presence in the hamlets.
Redfern’s optimism that cruise tourism can be a major economic contributor is well placed. Cruising is big business: In 2014, it was responsible for almost $120 billion in global spending, and while Nunavut is a very long way from the cruising heartlands of Florida and the Caribbean, this is an industry that has a history of exponential growth in relatively new markets.
Take Antarctica as an example. Mass tourism on the frozen southern continent is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the vast majority of its visitors arrive there by cruise ship. In the 1992-93 tourism season, 6,704 cruise passengers visited Antarctica, arriving via one of 10 different companies, which operated a combined 12 small expedition-class ships or yachts. Just 15 years later, in the 2007-08 season, 48 companies operating 55 vessels unloaded nearly 33,000 passengers among the penguins and leopard seals.
Alaska, too, has seen rapid growth in its cruise industry, and while Antarctica remains largely the preserve of small-ship tourism (the Ioffe, for one, heads to the Southern Hemisphere for winter before returning to the Arctic for the summer season), the northernmost state now welcomes massive, modern ships, each carrying thousands of passengers.
Today, the ships are a fact of life: Remote Alaskan villages and towns like Skagway (year-round population: 1,040) and Sitka (8,929) are built to receive daily floods of tourists. Walk down Skagway’s main drag on a summer day and you’ll see dozens of small businesses flogging tours, T-shirts, jewelry, smoked salmon, and more. But it wasn’t always that way. The first commercial cruise itineraries to Alaska — as distinct from passenger bookings on cargo-bearing steamships making regular runs up the west coast — only went on offer in the late 1950s, and the major global cruise lines, like Holland America and Princess, didn’t enter the market until the early 1970s. The number of berths available to cruise passengers heading to Alaska more than doubled between the early 1980s and the early ’90s, from 114,402 in 1984 to 309,411 in 1993. Those numbers pale in comparison to today’s: An estimated one million cruise passengers sailed to the 49th state in 2015. In 2014, the cruise industry was responsible for just over 18,500 jobs and $953 million in direct spending in the state.
Compare that behemoth to Nunavut’s nascent industry. Eight small-ship operators offer sailings to or within the territory, using roughly 11 different ships. In 2015, 30 voyages were scheduled territory-wide (although nine of them were later canceled by ice conditions), bringing around 2,900 passengers to Nunavut. Not all those sailings attempted an east-west Passage route: In the Northwest Passage itself, Transport Canada recorded just two complete transits and three partial transits last year, by ships carrying 100 to 300 passengers each. But Crystal’s arrival on the scene later this year, with a ship bearing around 1,000 passengers, will double 2015’s numbers in a single cruise. The economic potential, the potential for large-scale change, is there. That’s hopeful — and intimidating.
The Ioffe left Pond Inlet behind in the evening, weighing anchor and steaming west in the lingering evening light while the passengers polished off their desserts: milk-chocolate pots de crème topped with a bright pineapple salsa. Early the next morning, they woke up in Milne Inlet, an offshoot just south of the main Passage route. They quickly bundled up in warm layers and headed out onto the Ioffe’s decks for what a One Ocean staff member dubbed “Mission Narwhal.”
The notoriously shy, elusive, unicorn-horned whales migrate through Lancaster Sound each year by the thousands. Milne Inlet, branching south off Eclipse Sound just west of Pond Inlet, is among their most popular summering grounds. The plan was for the Ioffe to cruise the inlet as stealthily as possible in hopes of spotting the whales without scaring them off. If a group was spotted, the passengers would be deposited on shore and all engines would be silenced, to give everyone the best possible odds of an extended viewing.
A pick-up truck was parked in front. Men came and went, unloading plastic bags laden with fresh-caught, butchered narwhal that would be distributed to the community.
Today, however, the narwhal were not cooperating. That’s not unusual: They’re a rare sight under the best circumstances. But back in Pond Inlet, people had noticed that the narwhal were scarcer than normal this year.
“People are complaining that there are no whales coming through because of the ships,” Nutarak says. She’s not referring only to the cruise ships.
In August 2015, just a few days before the Ioffe’s arrival, the newly opened Baffinland iron mine sent its first shipload of ore out into the world through Milne Inlet and Eclipse Sound. (The mine aims to produce up to 150 such shipments each year.) An initial environmental plan had called for shipping through a less sensitive area, but falling commodity prices meant a change of itinerary. After the change was made official, Oceans North Canada, a marine conservation-focused branch of the Pew Charitable Trusts, scrambled to gather some baseline data from the new route. Three years ago, the organization partnered with local hunters to install seasonal acoustic monitoring stations in Milne, dropping them through gaps in the pack ice just before spring and then retrieving them in the fall before the waters iced over again. “It’s not much of a baseline, but we worked really hard to get them in before this intensive shipping started,” says Christopher Debicki, the projects director at Oceans North Canada.
The results so far? “We know that in the presence of shipping, we hear a lot fewer narwhal,” Debicki says, cautioning that the work so far is “preliminary presence-absence studies.” But, he emphasizes, “We certainly know that, in the presence of loud anthropogenic noise, those stations are capturing a lot less narwhal sound. Which seems to suggest that they may be at least temporarily displaced by shipping.” (The impact of whale-watching cruises has been studied more thoroughly on North America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, where evidence suggests that whale behaviors are altered by the presence of visitors; on the northern coast, very little research has yet been done.)
If the Ioffe’s passengers were disappointed to miss out on a narwhal sighting, the animal’s absence means much more to the people in Pond Inlet, where whales and seals are a critical source of protein. (“If I don’t have seal meat for a while, I feel sick,” Nutarak says. “My daughters, if they keep eating store-bought, they have trouble eating.”) The hunting angers many outsiders, and, as a result, relations between some big-name conservation groups — Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Sea Shepherd — and the Inuit have long been fraught. That leads to a less-tangible concern about the presence of the cruise ships in Nunavut: There’s a sense of exposure, a fear that visitors documenting their way of life — taking photographs of bloodied seals or whale carcasses being brought into the Hunters & Trappers Organization, for instance — could cause more celebrity condemnations (stars as varied as Brigitte Bardot, Paul McCartney, and Pamela Anderson have taken up the anti-sealing cause); more activism from the likes of Greenpeace; and more economic sanctions, like the import ban on all seal products in Europe and the United States, from the outside world.
But the cruise ships also represent the possibility of dialogue, of explaining Inuit ways to outsiders and hoping that they sail away as allies rather than enemies. Madeleine Redfern is optimistic on that front. Visitors, she says, can become ambassadors for the Inuit once they leave. While they might be shocked or angry, initially, at the idea of hunting and eating seals and other marine mammals, “Once they understand the context and the culture, [they] are prepared to go, ‘Well, it’s not for me, but I now understand and respect that this is part of your hundred-mile diet. That you hunt out of respect, that you feed your family, that this is an important source of nutrition. That you can’t have farms in the Arctic in any sort of cost-effective, realistic, pragmatic way.’ And so there’s a huge opportunity to bring about a better understanding and to have these tourists go away and actually correct their family and friends and others about the stereotypical misinformation that they came up with.”
Boris Wise, the expedition leader, agrees that tourism can be a sustainable economic driver in the region, but he also believes that the visitors and staff bring home less-tangible gifts, in return, from their exposure to the Arctic way of life.
“I’ve worked long enough in the North,” Wise says, “to know that everything kind of speaks for itself once you come and visit.”
One afternoon, three days after they left Milne Inlet, the 102 visitors on board the Ioffe stood frozen on deck, watching as a large male polar bear hunkered down over the corpse of a ringed seal on an ice floe just a few dozen yards away, tearing at the seal’s guts with his curved, yellowing teeth. They heard the dull scrape of the bear’s claws against the ice as he cleaned away his prey’s blood and gore. Two nights earlier, they’d watched a glacier calve into the ocean, their cheers mingling with the low roar as hundreds of tons of ice hit the water and disintegrated into newborn icebergs. They had hiked across gravel moonscapes where the only life was the thin, clinging lichen that coated the rocks below their feet. They’d sweated in the Pond Inlet community hall while the haunting grunts and gasps of traditional Inuit throat singing vibrated in their chests, and they’d watched a drum-dancer hop sideways, raven-like, matching the movements of the large black birds they’d seen outside. They’d watched the Arctic sun set on the Northwest Passage, lighting up the dark water with its fire, and then rise again within minutes.
They left the Ioffe behind in Cambridge Bay, another hamlet on Nunavut’s western limits, in the central Arctic. At around 1,600 people, Cambridge Bay is just a nudge larger than Pond Inlet, but it feels somehow bigger, busier. It’s home to a still-under-construction Canadian government Arctic research station, and it’s also the nearest town to the Hope Bay Project, a new fly-in gold mine in the making.
The passengers splashed out of the Zodiacs and onto the rocky Arctic beach one last time, where they were met by a local entrepreneur who handed out maps of the small town and reminded them when the last shuttle bus to the airport was leaving the modest visitors’ center. The tourists took one last stroll, this time without any need for armed guards on polar bear patrol: down the dusty dirt-and-gravel streets, between the small, colorful houses, looking out at the dark, cold, ice-free waters of the Northwest Passage on one side, and the endless, low, bare tundra that surrounds Cambridge Bay on the other. Just offshore, the Ioffe sat at anchor, its clean narrow lines lit up by the Arctic summer sun, waiting for the next group of passengers to come on board.