"So far the trip is amazing," passenger Michael Vertessen wrote Courthouse News in an email. Vertessen also sent the stunning pictures of the Arctic that accompany this article, via the ship's Internet and wi-fi.
Vertessen, 46, and his traveling companion Marc Ooms, 64, split their time between Brussels, Belgium and Cape Town, South Africa.
Ooms is a private equity investor and Vertessen owns a company that distributes cosmetics from South Africa to Europe. This is their sixth cruise.
"We reserved our tickets the moment it opened for sale, July 2014," Ooms and Vertessen wrote. "Seeing the glaciers was stunning. The rainforest and nature in Kodiak was also beautiful," they added before heading out to Nome for the day.
The final stop on Alaskan soil was a full day in Nome, finish line of the famed Iditarod trail, the nation's last big gold rush town, to which sled dogs brought serum to fight the diphtheria epidemic of 1925.
Nome officials have been planning for more than a year to entertain the 1,060 tourists who roamed the city Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"It was quite a day. Nome did itself proud," Mayor Richard Beneville wrote on his Facebook page that evening.
Capt. Vorland and the mayor exchanged gifts and joined dancers and drummers in a traditional Inupiat dance during the Blueberry Festival held in conjunction with the ship's visit.
From Nome the Crystal Serenity will move out of the Bering Sea to the Chukchi Sea, named after Russia's Chukchi people who still live on the Russian coast across the narrow sea.
The vessel will make stops in Canadian Arctic and native villages and in Greenland before stopping in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and finally New York.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Though Alaska Natives, environmentalists, scientists and commercial interests disagree on a number of issues, they all seem to agree that as sea ice thins and shrinks with climate change there will be more Arctic villages facing relocation and many more ships like Crystal Serenity to follow.
Environmentalists worry about the impact on an already stressed ecosystem: for the wildlife, the habitat, and human beings. Defense and maritime officials must be prepared to handle oil spills, or rescue operations that may necessitate large-scale evacuations from the remote Arctic.
The World Wildlife Fund took a less-than-rosy look at the Crystal Serenity cruise in a statement issued four days before its departure.
"It's because the Arctic is in meltdown that this cruise can take place. This year we saw the sea ice crash to a record low for June as it continued its downward spiral. The loss of sea ice is bad news for Arctic species like polar bears, walrus and narwhal, and for Arctic people," the environmental group said.
"WWF believes that the risk of an accident in these poorly charted, ice-infested waters is high. There is no effective technology to clean up oil spills in ice, and little infrastructure in place to deal with a major incident."
Polar program manager Rod Downie said in the statement that the World Wildlife Fund recognizes that "Arctic communities need good sustainable sources of revenue, and tourism is likely to be part of that future. We recognize the positive steps that Crystal Cruises have taken to minimize their impact, working with local communities and in particular choosing not to burn heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, which is more persistent and damaging to wildlife if spilled."
More Villages Will Move
Shishmaref will not be the last Arctic village to have to move.
"At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate — in part or entirely — or to explore relocation options," the Government Accountability Office wrote in a June 2009 report.
The GAO cited an Army Corps of Engineers assessment in its report to Congress, which asked for information about the need to relocate Alaska native villages threatened by flooding and erosion.
Though at least a dozen villages have decided to move, "The March 2009 Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment identified many villages threatened by erosion, but did not assess flooding impacts," the GAO told Congress.
At the time of the report, the village of Newtok, south of Shishmaref, had made the greatest progress. The GAO pegged Shishmarek, Kivalina and Shaktoolik as the villages that "will likely need to relocate all at once" but "have yet to identify sites that federal, state and village officials agree are safe, sustainable and desirable for subsistence lifestyle of the villagers."
In an ironic twist, for $600 per person, Serenity passengers could book an excursion flight to Shishmaref during the stopover in Nome.
The four-hour excursion was billed as a "Flight to Shishmaref: A Study in Global Warming."
"Participate in this unique excursion, which will bring you to an isolated Alaskan Native Village under threat from rising sea levels," the company's promotion states.
Vertessen and Ooms took the excursion, where they learned about the recent vote to move, the changes in sea ice and the threat of storm surges.
"For us it was the first direct confrontation with the effects of global warming," Vertessen wrote.
"A tight community being torn apart is quite shocking," he added. "It's a shame that only 18 guests of the cruise booked this excursion. The contrast between their houses, way of living and ours going back to the ship was enormous."
Vertessen had nothing but praise for the cruise line.
"Crystal does it very ecologically, with special fuel, nothing is thrown overboard and all visits are with a lot of respect to the local communities," he wrote.
Nome's Mayor Beneville called the cruise "a game changer."
The native people, scientists, environmentalists, search and rescue workers, oil and mineral companies, and now tourists are watching the Northwest Passage from close up, wondering how much of "the game" will change, and what it will mean.
Photos courtesy Michael Vertessen
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