BAR HARBOR, Maine — The recent voyage of the Crystal Serenity through the Arctic Ocean’s Northwest Passage was notable not only because it involved the largest cruise ship ever to take that route but also for what passengers failed to see: choking floes of sea ice.

When the ship called at the port here on Sept. 13, frequent cruiser Fred Holden, 70, said he had signed up for the month-long vacation primarily to see ice and icebergs.

“The trip wasn’t quite what I expected,” the resident of Canterbury, England, said while waiting on a local pier to ride a tender back to the luxury liner. “Because of global warming this year, the ice has melted so much that actually we had to look for ice rather than try to avoid it.”

The Crystal Serenity, a 790-foot ship that can carry more than 1,000 passengers and 500 crew, dropped anchor here in Frenchman Bay during the final leg of its journey, which began in Seward, Alaska on Aug. 16. After stopping at three small villages on the northern coast of Canada and three more in Greenland, the ship cruised back south, ending its historic trip in New York City on Sept. 16.

Historically, the Northwest Passage has been too choked with sea ice year round to be navigable, but warming waters have begun turning it into a shipping route by both passenger and cargo vessels. Increasing ocean temperatures also are rapidly affecting the Gulf of Maine, which is considered one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world.

Sen. Angus King of Maine has said that the opening of the Northwest Passage is of vital importance to the United States and that the country should take on a more active leadership role in the Arctic. Eastport, he has pointed out, is the closest deep water American port to the eastern end of the passage.

According to Holden, the Canadian villages that Serenity’s passengers visited were sparse and the surrounding landscape barren. “Ships of this size do have an impact,” Holden said. “In 20 to 30 years people might not be able to do what we’re doing because we’ve ruined it for them.”

However, he said, Crystal Cruises planned this particular voyage well: Only 100 to 200 were alone ashore at any one time in the small communities so as not to overwhelm them. And passengers were reminded not to trample the fragile landscape.

The crew also advised passengers not to buy everyday grocery items at the small stores in the remote villages, in order not to deplete their stocks, Holden said. Passengers were also warned not to buy narwhal tusks and other souvenirs that they would not be allowed to bring back into the United States.

According to Holden, villagers were “more than happy” to get the Serenity passengers’ business. At the Victoria Island village of Ulukhaktok (formerly known as Holman), the first Canadian village the ship visited, passengers spent $35,000 in less than 12 hours, Holden said.

“When [the village residents] see…people from the Crystal ship throwing their money around, it could have an impact,” Holden said.

In response to interview requests, Crystal Cruise officials said in a statement that the voyage was the culmination of more than three years of planning and coordination with local officials. The company is expecting to make a repeat voyage next year.

The company emphasized that it will continue to “meet or exceed all environmental regulatory requirements” for air and water quality and garbage disposal in the coastal regions where it operates. This includes voluntarily using 0.1-percent sulfur content marine gas oil which, it said, “is extremely clean burning.”

As for the long-terms cultural impact of repeat visits by a massive ocean liner, the company indicated that it has been working with Nunavut officials to make sure the Inuit communities benefit. “We will be discussing a number of ideas, ranging from helping with the construction of new buildings, scholarships for schoolchildren or bringing additional medical supplies,” the company said. “We hope to create easy ways for [our] guests to voluntarily assist the communities along the way, as well.”

Sean Todd, a marine science professor at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor who has visited Antarctica several times, said an independent international agency should be established to protect the Arctic region and its residents by requiring commercial operators to adhere to strict standards, similar to what the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators does in the southern polar region.

“There needs to be some sort of [international] regulatory system,” Todd said. “No one country can do this on its own.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....