Things to Consider
- The Northwest Passage is only accessible for a few months: July to September
- Average temperatures during this brief window are +4 to -4 °C (40 - 25 °F)
- Expedition cruises only operate in August and September once the narrow channels become ice free
- July and August are peak months for wildlife activity; by September wildlife is on the move again
- September trips benefit from better chances of experiencing the Northern Lights
When is the best time to go?
July marks the height of summer. It’s the warmest month of the year and these peak temperatures start to unlock the bays and waterways from their icy prison. The tundra is a profusion of wild flowers, while throughout the region there’s a frenzy of wildlife activity as all species are making the most of the summer breeding season.
Hordes of migratory birds have returned to nest congregate on Prince Leopold and Bylot Islands, while both belugas and narwhals are starting to migrate deeper into the heart of the Northwest Passage as the receding ice allows, making for spectacular encounters at Cunningham Inlet on Somerset island, and along the ice floe edge.
The excitement of August is that the receding ice allows the arrival of a small number of expedition ships, which provide the best means to explore the Northwest Passage on a cruise. Days are still long - helping to maximise wildlife sightings - and temperatures comparatively warm, however the weather can change rapidly and it can snow anytime.
Opportunistic polar bears by August - who have been following the migrating narwhal and beluga - can be found around Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands. Plus, remaining pockets of ice can assist bear sightings.
Shorter days, slightly cooler weather and higher chances of snow mark a step change in the seasons and the onset of autumn. However, as the ice continues to melt through September it becomes easier to get to ice strewn locations, which were inaccessible earlier in the season. Plus, the longer nights increase the chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
Wildlife is still very much in the area, even though the majority of birds have now migrated south. September can provide excellent sightings - for example, 5 polar bears, 25 belugas and 12 feeding bowheads were recently sighted all on a single day.
Whether it’s for the wildlife, Northern Lights or to visit Inuit communities that you’re heading north, it’s well worth paying attention to the monthly nuances to get the most from your trip.
Most Popular Northwest Passage Trips
Northwest Passage weather
While these are the most benign months of the year weather-wise, it’s well worth being prepared with a range of clothing so you don’t get caught off guard. This is the High Arctic after all.
The weather and temperatures can change rapidly and it can snow anytime. Heavy rain is quite rare but light showers and mist are common, and when the wind is from the north it can send temperatures plummeting.
Northwest Passage Cruises: FAQs
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. See more.
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.
Plan your trip
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