Things to know about the Northwest Passage
- Previously inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers, you can now discover a wealth of extraordinary wildlife, fascinating history and rich Inuit culture
- There are seven main routes through the Northwest Passage, which thread their ways through Canada’s Arctic archipelago of 36,500 islands
- This is true expedition, 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, making it ideal for polar bear, walrus, narwhal and beluga whale sightings
- 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?
The Northwest Passage is the sea route across the northern Canadian Archipelago joining the Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic. For centuries European explorers had sought a way through the ice in search of a shorter route to the East. Many lives were sacrificed in the search until Roald Amundsen succeeded between 1903-1906 on board the Gjoa.
The shrinking of the Arctic sea ice and advances in modern vessels has made the route increasingly accessible. Alongside the expedition ships carrying adventurers are a handful of commercial vessels cutting 2,500 miles off their journey, saving precious time and fuel, and serving the remote communities dotted through the region.
Historic places of the Northwest Passage
Guide to the Northwest Passage
Evidence suggests that humans first entered this region some 12,000 years ago, following big game across a land bridge that has now become the Bering Strait. The first archaeological remains of an established culture appeared 5,000 years ago with the Paleoeskimos, followed by the Dorset culture 2,500 years later who developed marine hunting techniques. Between 1,200 and 500 years ago the Thule began to build whalebone and sod houses, the remains of which you can still see today.
The Thule period also saw the first impact of an alien culture on the region. As the Vikings expanded their territory, artefacts suggest trade links were soon established with the Norsemen who settled in Greenland.
More recently the Northwest Passage became infamous as explorers tried and failed for centuries to find a way through the ice. To read more follow the link to our history page.
The waterways and islands of the Northwest Passage are home to the famous Arctic Big 5 - polar bear, musk ox, walrus, narwhal and beluga whales - alongside reindeer (caribou), seal, arctic fox and lemmings. In addition, the summer sees an influx of migratory visitors who are 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. In August 2017, a momentous step was taken to protect it with the formation of a national marine conservation area twice the size of Nova Scotia.
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 in number and height 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. With just a few isolated settlements such as Pond Inlet, Kuglutuk, Kugaaruk, Cambridge Bay, Resolute and Gjoa Haven the population totals just 36,000 people scattered over an area almost the size of Mexico.
The Northwest Passage offers so much variety. There is wildlife, often in spades, there is definitely scenery and there will be ice. And it's the ice that rules all. It's density will determine the route of your journey and what you see along the way.
Jon Goldsmith Head of Arctic
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.
While the stories of the early explorers evoke images of a bygone era of heroism and hardship, the background to the development of the Northwest Passage is slightly more mundane. The classic route for ships around Cape Horn was not only notoriously dangerous, it was also long, and that was costly. Finding a way through the northern ice would save time, cargo, lives and money. It wasn’t easy though, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914 took the edge off the need for the Northwest Passage. For years the only commercial activity involved companies like the Hudson Bay Trading Company; you can still see a few of their abandoned trading posts dotted through the region.
In recent years the receding ice has regenerated interest as commercial opportunity knocks again. With rich oil, gas and mineral deposits discovered in the Northern Territories of Canada, this interest is likely to intensify in coming years.
Best trips to the Northwest Passage
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 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 wildlife,…
This trip is ideal for those wanting to immerse themselves in Inuit history and culture as part of their Arctic adventure. Numerous community visits are planned, alongside daily excursions by zodiac and on foot. West Greenland’s spectacular whales and glaciers…
Northwest Passage: FAQs
Due to ice conditions it’s only a short summer visitor season, with the expedition ships only operating in August and September. See more about the best time to go.
In the absence of any hotels or infrastructure outside the handful and very isolated communities, the best way to explore is on board an expedition ship. Your ship operates as both your floating hotel, mode of transportation and basecamp for daily off ship excursions. Find out more about getting to the Northwest Passage.
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.
Plan your trip to the Northwest Passage
Northwest Passage Landing Sites
Exploring the Arctic on board an expedition vessel is a fully immersive and educational experience of which the daily landings are a key component. From the thrill of encountering …
Northwest Passage Ships
Sailing on an expedition ship gives you unparalleled access to the remote coastlines, icy channels and colourful, scattered communities of the Northwest Passage. Whether …
Northwest Passage Wildlife
The Northwest Passage may well be known by it's dramatic history; but it's waterways and islands are also home to all of the 'Arctic Big Five'. You'll have the chance to see polar …
Northwest Passage Cruises
This labryinthine waterway was long sought by early adventurers as a sea route linking the Northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Canada's Arctic archipelago is therefore no …