Northwest Passage (Canadian Arctic)

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Arctic - Antarctica


74.60178 N, -93.71338 W

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Northwest Passage is an Arctic Ocean route in North America, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The route goes along the Canada's northern coast via Arctic waterways  (sea channels) through the Canadian Arctic islands. All the Arctic sea waterways that separate these islands are known as "Northwest Passages" and also as "Northwestern Passages". 

  • As result of the Vikings' westward explorations, hunting expeditions and Greenland settlements, they sailed west and north reaching the islands Ellesmere, Skraeling and Ruin, trading here with the Inuit people.
  • The Northwest Passage route was officially discovered by Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (1807-1873, an Irish explorer). In 1850, he transited the Northwest Passage (by boat and sledge) as part of his circumnavigation of both Americas.
  • The Northwest Passage's eastern entrance was found in 1819. During the 1903–1905 expedition, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) transited the Canadian Artic passage. This was the world's first actual ship crossing of the Passage, as Amundsen used a small expedition ship (schooner, named "Gjoa") hugging the coast.
  • In 1957, three USCG Cutters (Bramble, SPAR, Storis) were the first ever motor ships to cross the Passage along a deep draft (draught) route with length of approx 7250 km (4500 ml) in 64 days.
  • In 1969, the ice-strengthened supertanker SS Manhattan was the ever first cargo ship that traversed the Passage. The vessel was accompanied (assisted) by the Canadian icebreaker ship John MacDonald. This voyage was only done to test the Passage as an alternative to the Alaska Pipeline project. The Passage was determined not economical and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built (between 1974-1977).
  • Until 2009, throughout most of the year the pack (thick) ice in the region prevented regular Arctic Ocean marine shipping traffic. Nowadays, the Arctic shrinkage has rendered this route more navigable. There are contested sovereignty claims over the Arctic Ocean waters (see below) that further complicate marine shipping through the Northwest Passage. Canada considers the these passages part of the country's internal waterways. USA and some European countries claim these are international waterways (including the transit passage). Another complication is that the Passage's eastern end has depth of just 15 m (49 ft) which reduces the route's viability as a marine shipping route.
  • A Chinese cargo shipping line has announced its plans to operate regular boxships (cargo ships) transits through the Northwest Passage, thus connecting China with East Coast USA-Canada and Europe. These plans became more viable after the September 2013's successful transit done by the bulk carrier Nordic Orion (73,500 DWT), as the cargo vessel was fully loaded and too large to transit through Panama Canal.
  • The potential benefits of the Passage are significant - around 4000 km (2500 ml) shorter cargo shipping routes between Europe and East Asia, faster and cheaper transportation of the Alaskan oil to ports on the East Coast USA, easier developing and shipping of the Canadian Arctic's mineral resources.

Where is the Northwest Passage (map)

Northwest Passage

According to the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO, founded in 1921), the Northwestern Passages limits are as follow:

  • Western limit - Beaufort Sea's eastern limit [through the Prince Patrick Island's southwest coast to Griffiths Point), the northwestern tip of Banks Island, through Banks' western coast to Cape Kellet's southwestern point) and to Cape Bathurst (mainland Canada)
  • Northwestern limit - Lands End, Prince Patrick Island, C Columbia, Ellesmere Island
  • Northeastern limit - Ellesmere Island's coast ( between C Columbia and C Sheridan) and the Baffin Bay's northern limit.
  • Eastern limit - Ellesmere Island's eastern coast (between C Sheridan and Cape Norton Shaw) to Phillips Point (on Coburg Island) through Coburg Island to Marina Peninsula and to Cape Fitz Roy (on Devon Island) down its eastern coast to Cape Osborn and to Cape Liverpool (on Bylot Island), down the Bylot's eastern coast to Cape Graham Moore, across to Cape Macculloch, down the Baffin Island's eastern coast to East Bluff (Baffin's southeastern extremity) and the Hudson Strait's eastern limit.
  • Southern limit - mainland Canada coast (Hudson Strait), the bay's northern limits, mainland Canada from Beach Point to Cape Bathurst.

The Northwest Passage map shows that marine vessels traveling west enter through Baffin Bay, then pass through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (by some of the above listed routes), exit into Beaufort Sea, and through Chukchi Sea and Bering Sea enter the Pacific Ocean. Recent satellite images taken near the summer's end (early September) show large portions of the Northwest Passage being relatively free of ice.

There is a progressive (steady) decline in the ice thickness in the region. NASA studies have shown the declie's rate is several % per decade. Discharge rates of the Eurasian rivers draining into the Arctic Ocean are also increasing due to melting glaciers. These fresh waters are much warmer than the Arctic's.

Arctic Ocean waters dispute

Canada claims that some of the Northwest Passage waters (those in the Canadian Arctic) are internal waterways (waters), giving the country the right to control transits through these waters. Most maritime nations (including the USA and those in Europe) classify these waters an "international strait", where all vessels have the right of transit the passage. Canada would still have the right to enact regulation (including fishing and environmental), laws (including fiscal and smuggling) and safety shipping regulations, but not the right to close the Northwest Passage. When (eventually) the passage’s waters during summer become completely free of ice, they would allow Arctic transition of supertankers - too big to pass through Panama Canal and otherwise navigating around South America (through the Strait of Magellan).

  • In 1985, the USCG icebreaker Polar Sea transited the passage from Greenland to Alaska. The event resulted in a diplomatic incident. In 1986, Canada issued a declaration reaffirming its rights to these waters. The USA refused to recognize the claim. In 1988, both governments signed "Arctic Cooperation" agreement resolving the issue without solving the questions about the passage's sovereignty . Under the law of the sea, marine vessels engaged in transit passage are not permitted to research. However, the 1988's Canada-USA agreement allows USCG ships engaged in research would require permission from Canada to pass through.
  • In 2005 was reported that US nuclear submarines had traveled through the Canadian Arctic waters. Later, the US Navy released photos of USS Charlotte (Los Angeles-class submarine) at the North Pole.
  • On April 9, 2006, Canada declared that its military will no longer refer to this Arctic Ocean region as "Northwest Passage", but as "Canadian Internal Waters".
  • On July 9, 2007, the Canada's Prime Minister announced the establishment of a deep-water port in the region. On the next day, two US Rear Admirals - Timothy McGee (US Navy) and Brian Salerno (USCG) - announced that the USA would be increasing its Arctic patrol ability.

Northwest Passage routes

The Northwest Passage route includes 3 sections:

  • Eastern route - east of Baffin Island (between Baffin and Greenland) to Lancaster Sound (located at the island's northern end), west of Baffin Island (through Hudson Strait, located south of Baffin), north through Foxe Basin, west through Fury-Hecla Strait, north to Lancaster Sound (through Boothia Gulf and Prince Regent Inlet). However, this route is considered impractical as Fury-Hecla Strait is usually closed by pack ice.
  • Northern route - from Lancaster Sound west through Parry Channel to Prince of Wales Strait (located on the Victoria Island's northwestern side), southwest through Prince of Wales Strait (located between the islands Victoria and Banks).
  • Southern route - from Lancaster Sound west past Prince Regent Inlet (exiting west through Bellot Strait), past Somerset Island, south through Peel Sound (between the islands Somerset and Prince of Wales), either southwest through Victoria Strait or directly south (through the straits Rae and James Ross) then west through Simpson Strait (located south of King William Island) going into the Queen Maud Gulf, then west along mainland Canada and south of Victoria Island.

Northwest Passage cruises

In 2011, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ship MS Bremen was the world's first ever cruise ship with a Northwest Passage Cruise itinerary (Kangerlussuaq Greenland  to Nome Alaska). In 2012, MS Hanseatic (another HL ship) made a full transit with a 25-days itinerary leaving from Nome AK (on August 14) and ending in Reykjavik Iceland (on September 7). In 2012 were reported a total of 24 yachts that have fully-transited the Passage.

In 2013, two of the the Compagnie du Ponant ships - Le Soleal and Le Boreal - were the first France-flagged marine vessels crossing the Northwest Passage. The unique itinerary started on August 26, 2013, when they left Kangerlussuaq Greenland to arrive in Anadyr Russia on September 16. Among the ports of call along the route were Beechey Island and King William Island (Gjoa Haven).

  • During these voyages, Ponant cruise passengers enjoyed meeting the Inuit people and wildlife - seeing hundreds of beluga whales and narwhales, and around 60 polar bears. Charles Hedrich (French sportsman and adventurer) was also there as special guest - being the world's first man to solo cross the Northwest Passage (in September 2009) in a rowing boat.
  • The Ponant ships were under the command of Captains Etienne Garcia (on Le Boréal) and Patrick Marchesseau (on Le Soléal).
  • In 2015, Abercrombie & Kent chartered Le Boreal for a full Northwest Passage transit (Kangerlussuaq to Anadyr).

In 2014, Silversea's ship Silver Explorer did the line's first Northwest Passage crossing. The 23-days long itinerary started in Kangerlussuaq (on August 9) and ended in Nome AK (on September 2), covering a distance of over 4000 ml (6480 km).

In August 2016, Crystal Cruises ship Crystal Serenity was the world's first larger-sized cruise ship (length 250 m / 820 ft) with a Northwest Passage crossing itinerary (CruiseMapper news link). Previously (in April 2016), an UK icebreaker RRS Ernest Shackleton (research vessel with an ice-strengthened hull) was chartered by the cruise company to escort its top-luxury ship through the Northwest Passage (CruiseMapper news link).

  • Ernest Shackleton was equipped with two helicopters for emergency use, tools for oil pollution containment, high-tech communications equipment, survival rations and professional crew experienced in the Northwest Passage and using the vessel's safety equipment. The Crystal Serenity ship was upgraded with ice detection radar, ice navigation system and forward-looking sonar. Its bridge team received ice navigation training, and ice pilots boarded both Ernest Shackleton and Crystal Serenity for the Arctic Ocean crossing cruise. The Ernest Shackleton's crew also assisted with the line's "Unexpected Adventures" tours (like helicopter flightseeing, Zodiac wet landings, speed boat rides and kayaking).
  • The Crystal's "Northwest Passage Cruise" started in August 2016. The 32-days long one-way itinerary was from Seward Alaska to NYC New York (August 16 to September 16), with ports of call Kodiak Island Alaska (Aug 17), Dutch Harbor Unalaska (Aug 19), Nome Alaska (Aug 21), Victoria Island Nunavut Canada (Aug 27 and 29), Baffin Island Nunavut Canada (Sept 4), Ilulissat Greenland (Sept 7), Sisimiut Greenland (Sept 8), Nuuk Greenland (Sept 9), Bar Harbor Maine (Sept 13), Boston Massachusetts (Sept 14) and Newport Rhode Island (Sept 15). In 2017 the Serenity ship has scheduled a second Northwest Passage transit.
  • The 2017 cruise itinerary (32-days Seward to New York City, August 15 through September 15) included the same ports of call - Kodiak Island (Aug 16), Dutch Harbor (Aug 18), Nome (Aug 20), Victoria Island (Aug 25 and 28), Baffin Island (Sept 3), Ilulissat (Sept 6), Sisimiut (Sept 7), Nuuk (Sept 8), Bar Harbor ME (Sept 12), Boston MA (Sept 13) and Newport RI USA (Sept 14).
  • Crystal cruise prices started from around USD 22,000 per person (double occupancy rates).

Another luxury cruise line (Regent Seven Seas) also announced its first "Northwest Passage Cruise" scheduled for 2017 summer.

Northeast Passage cruises

In September 2016, the Hanseatic ship navigated the "Northeast Passage" cruising a total of 5542 nautical miles (6378 ml / 10264 km).

The Northwest Passage cruise port map is interactive. It shows the port's exact location, along with the real-time cruise ship traffic (if any) in its vicinity - today, and right now. By zooming-out you can see other cruise ship ports located near Northwest Passage, Canadian Arctic.

If you lose the Northwest Passage location on the map, simply reload the page (also with F5 button). This feature is integrated with the CruiseMapper's cruise ship tracker tracking the vessels' current positions at sea and in ports.