Things to know about the Northwest Passage

  • Previously inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers, you can now discover the wealth of extraordinary wildlife, fascinating history and rich Inuit culture
  • There are actually seven main routes to the Northwest Passage as it threads its way through Canada’s Arctic archipelago of 36,500 islands
  • This is a true expedition, ice conditions may have changed to let more ships through but that does not allow every ship through and many routes and landing sites are dictated by an ever changing ice-scape
  • Sea ice covers the archipelago for much of the year, but by late summer many of the waterways become ice free offering chance for exploration
  • Lancaster Sound is a major migratory route for many marine and terrestrial species - ideal for spotting polar bear, walrus, narwhal and beluga whales
  • It’s one of the least populated regions on the planet with 0.05 people per square mile - a true Arctic wilderness

What is the Northwest Passage?

It’s the sea route from the North Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean that passes through the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. For centuries, European explorers sought to discover a route through these ice-bound waters and unlock a shorter trade route to the East – but failed until the 20th century.

The progressive shrinking of the Arctic sea ice means the route has become increasingly ice-free and navigable. Both for expedition ships carrying adventure tourists and also commercial vessels, cutting 2,500 miles (4,000km) off their journey and saving precious time and fuel.

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Guide to the Northwest Passage

History

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The search for the Northwest Passage is one of the greatest stories in the annals of exploration. Following unsuccessful attempts in the 15th and 16th centuries, hopes were high when Sir John Franklin’s well-equipped expedition set out in 1845. But events didn’t play out as hoped.

The disappearance of both ships and the whereabouts of the 129 men aboard launched successive search parties over the next 11 years, but no trace was found. It wasn’t until the discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016 that this 165 year old riddle was finally put to rest.

In the end it was Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, who was the first to actually navigate the entire route by ship over three years, from 1903 to 1906. The first commercial vessel to successfully complete the route was the SS Manhattan in 1969, a specially reinforced supertanker. The commercial significance of this achievement catapulted the Northwest Passage from relative obscurity. Now viable during the summer for commercial shipping, sovereignty issues are drawing neighbouring countries into heated debate.

Geography

The landscape surrounding the Northwest Passage consists almost entirely of low lying islands covered in tundra. There are no trees, just dwarf shrubs, forbs and sedges, as well as grasses. The number of plant species decreases the further north you go.

The land is bisected by a vast labyrinth of winding waterways, some of which are large enough to qualify as seas. There are 94 major islands (Baffin Island, the biggest, is larger than the UK) and 36,469 minor islands. Towns are entirely absent, with just a few isolated settlements at Cambridge Bay, Resolute and Gjoa Haven. The population totals just 36,000 people scattered over an area almost the size of Mexico.

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Climate

It can be very cold here. The little community of Resolute on Cornwallis Island is one of the coldest inhabited places on earth - the average annual temperature is −15.7 °C (3.7 °F). The daily mean temperatures in late summer however are more bearable: August is 2.0 °C (35.6 °F) and September – 4.1 °C (24.6 °F).

The climate is also very dry, with average precipitation of just 161.2 mm (6.35 in) a year. Most of this falls as snow from August to September – the two months when most expedition cruise ships visit.

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Wildlife

The waterways and islands of the Northwest Passage are home to the Arctic Big 5 - polar bear, musk ox, walrus, narwhal and beluga whales - alongside reindeer (caribou), seal, arctic fox and lemmings. While the summer sees an influx of migratory visitors on the wing, making the most of the short breeding season.

Lancaster Sound is a wildlife superhighway for many marine and terrestrial species, forming one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. A significant step was taken in August 2017 to protect it with the formation of a national marine conservation area twice the size of Nova Scotia.

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Commercial

The initial impetus to open up a Northwest Passage was economic, driven by merchants eager to find a shorter route to and from the markets of the Orient. However, early efforts were thwarted by the physical challenges of the ice. Then the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914 made the discovery of alternative options less commercially advantageous.

However, in recent years this lack of interest has reversed as commercial opportunity knocks with increasingly ice free summers. The Northern Territories of Canada and the state of Alaska are rich in oil, gas and mineral deposits. You will also find the remains of trading through the region by companies like the Hudson Bay Trading Company.

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The Northwest Passage map

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Discover the Northwest Passage

Jon says

Northwest Passage: FAQs

  • When’s the best time to visit?

    Due to ice conditions it’s only a short summer visitor season, with the expedition ships only operating in August and September. See more.

  • Northwest Passage sailing

    In the absence of any hotels or infrastructure outside the handful and very isolated communities, the ebst way to explore is on board an expedition ship, which operates as both your floating hotel, mode of transportation and basecamp for daily off ship excursions.

  • How do I get there?

    Charter and infrequent scheduled flights from Canadian gateway cities (Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto) provide access to the scattered communities (Resolute, Cambridge Bay, Coppermine & Gjoa Haven), where expedition cruises start/finish. See more.

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