Snorkelling in icy waters and hiking remote terrain: Adventure tourism arrives in the vulnerable Arctic
Thrill of visiting remote sites comes with responsibility of protecting fragile environment
If only the weather had been better, cruise ship passengers on an expedition through the Northwest Passage might have had a chance to snorkel at the wreck of HMS Erebus in the icy waters of Nunavut.
Avid snorkellers did get in the water later in their journey, but the unprecedented recent opportunity to gaze down on the remains of the 19th-century British vessel lost during John Franklin's expedition was thwarted by high winds.
With gusts hitting more than 90 km/h and swells of more than two metres, tour organizers thought it was just too risky to try to navigate in and out of a narrow channel to reach the Erebus site in Wilmot and Crampton Bay.
Passenger Marlis Butcher was disappointed, but took the change in itinerary in stride.
"We knew it was a possibility," said Butcher, an experienced northern traveller from Burlington, Ont. "That's the Arctic for you."
Those planning trips like the one Butcher took in September are used to adjusting to rapidly changing Arctic conditions, and they're likely to be doing more of that as adventure tourism seems poised for growth in the North.
With it comes the challenge of introducing southern visitors to unique and remote sites and landscapes while trying to ensure those places aren't threatened.
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The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says 10 passenger ships made a partial transit of the Northwest Passage last year, up from six in 2015.
The number of partial transits by all types of vessels in 2016 was 24, up from 16 the year before and 10 in 2012. (In 2010, there were 19 such transits.)
Protecting Franklin wrecks
Figures from Fisheries and Oceans this summer showed an estimated 39 adventurers, yachts and other non-commercial passenger vessels might be planning a full or partial transit this year.
Tour operator Adventure Canada and Parks Canada had planned the Northwest Passage expedition visit to the Erebus wreck, along with stops at three remote national parks.
"Parks Canada's priority, along with providing a safe and meaningful visitor experience, is to ensure that any visitor activity at HMS Erebus is low impact and that the wreck and its surrounding environment are protected," the agency said in an email before the visit was thwarted by the nasty weather.
Now that Erebus, along with the other Franklin ship HMS Terror, have been found, Parks Canada said it is shifting its focus "to the conservation, protection and presentation of the Franklin wrecks with the government of Nunavut and designated Inuit organizations."
A Parks Canada permit is required to visit the wreck sites, and doing so without a permit could lead to a fine of up to $500,000.
Access to the Terror site, about 100 kilometres north, requires an archeological permit from the Nunavut government.
At the three national parks on this year's expedition — Qausuittuq, Sirmilik and Auyuittuq — visitors were divided into small groups and taken on guided hikes, at times spotting wildlife such as muskox and Peary caribou. Those groups were limited to 25 visitors for onshore activities and 10 for visits to cultural sites.
"These small groups were also accompanied by Parks Canada staff who ensured that any restrictions were adhered to and also provided interpretation of the places visited by the passengers," the agency said.
A zodiac cruise of Nedluseak Fiord gave visitors a chance to see "astounding cliff faces, hanging valleys and glaciers," the agency said.
Butcher and others in a small group of snorkellers did get into the water in Tay Bay, on the outskirts of Sirmilik National Park, and later in Greenland.
"To see how much life there is underwater — that I was not expecting at all," said Butcher. "Above ground the world was in black and white and there was snow and there was very little vegetation.... Underwater it was lush. There were sea stars down there. There were sea urchins."
While tour operators such as Adventure Canada plan such expeditions, they are doing so as officials wrestle with how to oversee them.
The Nunavut government is developing new marine tourism regulations that are set to come into force on April 1, 2018, ahead of next year's cruise season.
Those regulations may contain provisions that limit the number of cruise passengers in a community at any one time, said Bernie MacIsaac, the territory's assistant deputy minister for economic development.
Ken McGoogan, an author and historian who was on the Adventure Canada voyage and talked with passengers about Arctic exploration, would welcome such limits.
"The trick is to keep it controlled, in my opinion," he said before the voyage set out. "As the waters become increasingly open, there's going to be more and more ships up there. You don't want ships with 1,000 passengers walking off."
Lots of permits
No regulations in Nunavut exist specifically for cruise operators. Instead, that's regulated at federal and international levels.
"Nunavut does, however, have jurisdiction over cruise ships when they disembark their passengers on land in the territory," MacIsaac said, with cruise ships needing up to 33 permits from federal and territorial regulatory bodies. Territorial requirements range from visitor permits to licences for outfitters and wildlife observation.
But is everything being done enough to ensure protection of sites tourists will want to visit in the Arctic?
Rob Huebert, an associate professor in the University of Calgary's political science department, isn't so sure.
"The reality in the Arctic is it's so difficult to get to many of these places that are parks or tourist attractions … and we do not have the proper facilities to oversee it."
Huebert, a senior research fellow at the university's Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, looks at the Adventure Canada trip and sees it as one "following the rules," so there is time to prepare.
"My major concern is what happens to those who … show up in their own little boats and yachts and so forth … without any prior notice and start diving around the area."
He sees federal movement in the area. For example, work is underway in the Halifax Shipyard on the Arctic offshore patrol vessel HMCS Harry Dewolf, the first of six such vessels.
"We definitely have to be doing what we say we want to be doing, which is increasing our surveillance and our enforcement capability."
For its part, Adventure Canada says it takes care to ensure it's not altering any place it visits.
"It's very important to us … as a tour operator that we're not disturbing these sites," said expedition services co-ordinator Jason Edmunds.
Adventure Canada's expedition took 197 passengers aboard the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour on a 17-day voyage. Passengers were briefed before landings and could take photographs, but were to leave nothing more than footprints behind.
Out of it all, Edmunds hoped they would gain a greater appreciation of what they see, and could become ambassadors for the sites and the protection they need.
"It's quite hard," he said. Nunavut doesn't get a whole lot of visitors "and is not quite understood by the southern world."
While weather thwarted the visit to the Erebus site, passengers did visit other places associated with the Franklin Expedition, and heard from Parks Canada staff onboard the ship about the agency's work with the Erebus and Terror wrecks.
Butcher was particularly struck by the stop at Beechey Island, where passengers saw graves of three of Franklin's men.
Her mind drifted to thinking about those who were part of the Franklin Expedition, and those who came later in search of them.
"They must have thought they had come to the end of the Earth. That was really one of the highlights of this trip to see what they would have seen."
Parks Canada says it is committed to partnering with Adventure Canada for another expedition through the Northwest Passage next year, and "this year's plans and activities will inform the 2018 itinerary."
While snorkelling over the Erebus didn't work out this year, Adventure Canada hopes a visit to the Erebus site could be part of a future expedition.
"We did have numerous successful snorkels throughout the rest of the expedition, unfortunately not around that particular site," said expedition leader Matthew James Swan.
"If it's going to have no impact on the site and keep the site as pristine as it is and we have good weather conditions, most definitely we would explore that again."