Reasons to Go
- The Northwest Passage is one of the world’s great historical voyages
- Few places on the planet remain as remote and little travelled
- Spot the Arctic’s Big 5: polar bears, belugas, walrus, musk ox & narwhal
- Inuit community visits provide fascinating insights into High Arctic life
- With thousands of islands and bays to explore, this is real expeditionary cruising
Top Landing Sites in the Northwest Passage
The eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound’s is renowned for both its bountiful wildlife and importance as a sanctuary. Described as an Arctic wildlife ‘superhighway’, the areas statistics speak for themselves:
- Canadian Arctic’s largest density of polar bears
- 75% of the world’s population of narwhal
- 20% of Canada’s beluga population, along walrus & bowheads
- 35% of Canada’s colonial seabirds breed here
The recent establishment of Tallurutiup Imanga - Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area - as Canada’s largest marine protected area at 109,000 square kilometers underlines its importance, while safeguarding its future.
Named after Frenchman Joseph Bellot, one of the many adventurers who set out in search of the missing Franklin Party in the 1850’s, this narrow channel divides Somerset Island from the northernmost point of continental North America.
Only half a mile wide, Bellot Strait is notorious for its strong tides which can prove challenging even today, let alone for the early explorers. These currents throw up plankton attracting fish, and as a result it’s a good place for wildlife: seals, polar bears, arctic fox and musk ox.
Beechey Island & The Franklin Graves
Standing sentinel on a windswept beach are the three graves of John Torrington, John Harnell and William Braine, the earliest casualties in what turned into that infamous, tragic opera. As the most tangible clues to what happened, their exhumation played a pivotal role in the unmasking of lead poisoning as a key contributor to the demise of Franklin's party.
Standing next to the lonely graves of these lost Englishman, more famous in death than when alive, is certainly sobering. All Northwest Passage cruises make a stop at this site.
The only settlement on Prince William Island, any ships putting into Gjoa Haven are guaranteed a very warm welcome. A leisurely stroll through the friendly nearly 1,200 strong community will lead you to the monument of Roald Amundsen. Finding ice blocking his path in his ship Gjøa in October 1903, he made this natural harbour his base for two years.
The town really knows how to turn up a square dance giving visitors the opportunity to engage with community members, while the income from locally made handicrafts can really help to make a difference.
Franklin’s Ships - HMS Erebus & Terror
The discovery of HMS Erebus in 2016 and the solving of a 168 year old mystery has cast the whole saga of the Franklin Expedition back into the limelight, bringing with it renewed interest in The Northwest Passage. The subsequent discovery of HMS Terror, the sister ship, just two years later was nothing short of extraordinary.
The wrecks have been designated National Historic Sites of Canada with their precise locations near to Prince William Island closely guarded. While the first commercial expedition ship was granted permission by Parks Canada to visit the site of HMS Terror in 2016, access is likely to remain tightly controlled.
Tips on planning your trip
Given the overall time and cost factors involved with a once-in-a-lifetime trip like this choosing exactly the right trip for you is crucial. To help you get started, here are a few tips on key areas you should be considering:
- The limited number of cruises and strong demand means booking 12 -18 months ahead is recommended
- Most depart in August/ September when late summer ice allows safe passage through the narrow channels
- There’s no definitive route to traversing the Northwest Passage, so focus on the planned landings
- The distances are significant - trips range from 13 -17 days - which means ship speed is significant
- Northwest Passage cruises typically start or finish in West Greenland, providing interesting contrast
- When to go & the direction of travel are important variables worth considering as they both carry influence
Svalbard may have more polar bears than people and Greenland has its vast ice, but neither can compete with the Northwest Passage when it comes to fascinating history.
Alex Mudd General Manager
Trips to The Northwest Passage
Traversing west to east, we like this Northwest Passage itinerary not only for the inclusion of well known places such as Cambridge Bay, Lancaster Sound and Pond Inlet, but also for the additional time spent exploring the fjords of northeast…
A transit of the Northwest Passage is one of the world’s most iconic voyages. We like this trip for its shorter length and the ship, which carries only 96 people. Sail eastwards exploring the vast archipelago of islands and channels,…
This comprehensive westbound voyage stands out for its compelling combination of West Greenland, in-depth exploration of remote Baffin Island and the historic Northwest Passage. Jaw dropping scenery, towering icebergs, thrilling wildlife encounters, Inuit community visits and fascinating history pervade this…
Spending equal time exploring Canada’s historic Northwest Passage and West Greenland, we like this voyage’s balance and variety as much as exploring little visited places like Thule, one of the northernmost towns in the world. Big ice, rich history, exotic…
For an all round introduction to the Arctic, with a strong focus on wildlife, this trip is hard to beat. Searching for bears, whales and musk ox, experiencing Greenland's ‘big ice’ and learning about the early explorers as you traverse…
Traversing the heart of the Northwest Passage this compact trip focuses on the region’s fascinating history and wildlife. Planned visits to numerous locations linked to the Franklin expedition, narrated by onboard historians, combine with renowned wildlife hotspots such as Lancaster…
When to Go
It’s only possible to explore the Northwest Passage by ship in late summer when the ice has receded to its farthest point allowing safe passage through the narrow, labyrinthine channels.
Most departures are in August or September, when dropping temperatures in early autumn combine with improved Northern Lights sightings.
Getting to the Northwest Passage
The Canadian territory of Nunavut, which encompasses the Northwest Passage, is vast and sparsely populated, with limited scheduled flights.
To simplify the logistics, all boat operators arrange special charter flights from Canadian gateway cities (Ottawa, Edmonton or Toronto) to and from the start and end points for each individual cruise, which makes life easy.
How much will it cost?
These trips aren’t low cost due to the logistical challenges of travelling in such a remote area, the distances covered and the overall duration of each trip. Prices start from around USD$9,600 per person.
Plus, on top of the actual voyage cost, there’s an additional mandatory charter flight package which can add on USD$1,500 - $2,500 per person, depending on the routing.
There’s nowhere else in the entire Arctic Region which can deliver such a heady cocktail of history, wildlife, scenery & northern hospitality.
FAQs about the Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage is a sea route connecting the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via waterways through the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Explorers for centuries sought the existence of a navigable passage, however it wasn’t until 1903–1906 when the Norwegian Roald Amundsen proved it with the first successful transit.
Edmonton and Ottawa are the main international gateways for onward scheduled and charter flights to the start and end points further north, which are typically Cambridge Bay, Resolute, Kugluktuk (Coppermine) or Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland.
The search for the fabled Northwest Passage stretched across four centuries and is a fascinating story of failure, disaster and tragedy, but also of great heroism and endurance which continues to resonate and be of great interest. Recent changes in Arctic climate and the viability of an ice free Northwest Passage for commercial shipping has further peaked interest in this incredibly rich historical region.
The wildlife in The Arctic isn’t as plentiful and guaranteed as it is in Antarctica, however it is there and can be seen with patience and tenacity.