Proceed with caution
Arctic expeditions today enable ordinary people to become intrepid explorers of the tundra, following in the footsteps of legendary seafarers and fearsome Vikings. But these tours have traditionally held a reputation for being unsafe and unsustainable. This is not without reason; expedition ships and their passengers brave poorly chartered waters littered with icebergs, temperatures way below zero, and unpredictable weather. “Icing”—the freezing of ocean spray onto a ship’s superstructure and external components—is a particular threat; it can destabilize vessels and even cause them to capsize.
Expeditions not only put voyagers under threat, but also the delicately balanced Arctic ecosystem. The North Pole is home to vulnerable species like polar bears and beluga whales. Hordes of tourists flock northwards to see these magnificent beasts in their natural environment while they still can. This, in turn, triggers a vicious circle. More cruises means increased CO2 emissions, which contributes towards the melting of the polar icecaps, furthering the plight of indigenous fauna. Cruise liners carry the risk of fuel oil spills, too—a danger heightened by the presence of icebergs. The catastrophic impact of these accidents on wildlife is well documented.
Rules and regulations
However, there are measures in place to mitigate these risks. The Polar Code encourages ships not to use or transport heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, minimizing the impact of potential spills. Oil discharge is prohibited, and sewage may be jettisoned only if the ship has an approved treatment plant. Furthermore, expeditions must be relatively small to moderate CO2 emissions, with 8 to 318 passengers per vessel. An AECO guideline stipulates that no more than 100 of these are allowed on shore at any one time.
In addition to protecting the fragile region and its endangered inhabitants, the Polar Code aims to keep passengers safe. It therefore dictates that all passengers on Arctic expedition ships are provided with thermal clothing and immersion suits. Ice removal and fire safety equipment has to be available on all vessels, too. And every senior crewmember must have completed basic training for open waters, as well as advanced training for icy waters.
Built for exploration
Protecting voyagers and the environment is not just a matter of having the right equipment and procedures; the ship itself must be sturdy and robust. Quark Expeditions, for example, operates specialized vessels that combine the safety and comfort of luxury cruise liners with the power and resilience of purpose-built icebreakers. The ships ease through the iciest of waters, ensuring a journey as smooth as it is thrilling.
In fact, 50 Years of Victory, one of Quark Expeditions’ vessels, is the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. With a specially-designed hull and bow, it is capable of cutting through ice up to 2.5 meters thick. It also boasts a helicopter for aerial sightseeing, as well as inflatable landing boats to transport guests from ship to shore. Provided the company has obtained official permission, voyagers can even set foot on the ice. This is thanks to stabilizers, which keep ships level when stationary and undocked, allowing passengers to safely disembark away from a harbor. The fin-like structures also prevent vessels from rolling in rough seas and tipping due to icing.
Sustainability is key
Arctic expeditions provide tourists with a unique opportunity to experience one of the planet’s most captivating regions. Yet vessels may not be permitted in Arctic waters at all if they fail to adhere to environmental and safety regulations. The second installment in this series on expedition ships focuses more closely on the components and measures that ensure polar voyages are safe, sustainable, and enjoyable.