What to Know Before Cruising the Canadian Arctic

Canada has more land in the Arctic than any other country–here's what it’s like to cruise in this remote region, and how the industry is evolving after pandemic closures.
Looking out over a frozen Baffin Bay in the Arctic Archipelago. Outdoors Nature Ice Mountain Transportation Vehicle...
Keith Shepard/Alamy

Presented by Destination Canada

All listings featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you book something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

For more than 300 years, explorers attempted to find a water route between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean through the treacherous Arctic Ocean before they found Northwest Passage in 1905. Now, even knowing that route, the Canadian Arctic remains one of the most untouched and undeveloped domains on the planet—making it an alluring challenge for adventurous souls

Most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago lies in the sparsely populated Canadian territory of Nunavut, where the unique topography is characterized by endless spans of treeless tundra, hugged by cold waters only accessible to those who dare to dock on their rocky shorelines. Small planes operated by Canadian North or Calm Air connect many remote fly-in communities to Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital city, and the rest of Canada. However, travel by sea allows a visitor to see more of this region in a single trip. These cruises typically travel between Greenland and Nunavut, traversing through the Northwest Passage. After the cruise, small charter flights return passengers to a larger airport, like Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), where passengers can plan their connecting flights home.

Today, ships of all sizes cruise past some of the more than 36,000 islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada (and the fifth-largest island in the world), is home to Iqaluit, and the 2,300-square-mile Penny Ice Cap, a remnant of the last ice age. Thirteen different communities in the Canadian Arctic receive cruise passengers, departing from Iqaluit to Kinngait, known for its many sculptures and line drawing artists, and sailing through the Northwest Passage to Pond Inlet. Smaller ships, like those used by Adventure Canada or Quark Expeditions, can access more remote communities than large luxury liners that sometimes sail the region. Many ships also use zodiac expedition boats that allow passengers to visit uninhabited islands, enjoy guided hikes on the tundra, and get a closer look at glaciers and icebergs without risking damage to these natural wonders. (Don’t forget to bring your binoculars while aboard an Arctic cruise, as you may have the opportunity to spot local wildlife like polar bears, belugas, and narwhals, on the shore or in the water.) 

Those who know the Canadian Arctic best are the Inuit, who have survived and thrived in this ice-laden place from time immemorial. The cruise ships visit remote Indigenous communities where guests can learn and shop from local Inuit artists, enjoy cultural experiences and visit small businesses, museums, and historical sites. If you plan to purchase a line drawing or soapstone carving, remember to withdraw Canadian cash as not all artists accept purchases by card. Onboard activities for expedition vessels include educational seminars from scientists, historians, wildlife experts, photographers, artists, and cultural ambassadors.

As cruising in this region resumes for the first time since 2019, not all welcome the return of visits on ocean liners. “There is a divide in the community about the return of cruise ships,” admits Theresa Dalueg, Community Economic Development Officer for Pond Inlet in Nunavut, one of the most popular cruise ports in the territory. “Tourism is an important source of income for many people in Nunavut. It provides opportunities for artists, performers, outfitters, small businesses, and tour guides to make a living and provide for their families. There is still some fear of welcoming visitors since the pandemic, but thankfully cruise companies are very understanding and are following guidelines set in place by the government.”

Cruise companies are working with the government of Nunavut and local communities to give back to Arctic communities and help mitigate the division. One such effort is the Inuit Cruise Training Initiative, a program developed in partnership with Parks Canada and Adventure Canada to train local Inuit people to work onboard ships and be cultural ambassadors and guides in their communities.

The future of arctic cruising 

Experiencing the Canadian Arctic firsthand and learning from top scientific minds often results in passengers who become ambassadors for the region and the challenges it faces. One of those challenges is climate change, resulting in more unpredictability for those who travel in this region. The cryosphere, which includes sea ice, ice caps, glaciers, seasonal snow cover, permafrost, river, and lake ice, is the ecosystem most sensitive to the effects of global warming. According to the government of Nunavut, weather and ice conditions affected half of the planned cruise voyages in that territory in 2018.

“Climate change is real, and you can see it when you visit small Indigenous communities that are directly impacted by it,” says Alana Bradley-Swan, Director of Product for Adventure Canada. “Adventure Canada has been sailing the Canadian Arctic since 1991. We’ve noticed changing ice patterns that are becoming more unpredictable. This makes cruising the Arctic more challenging.”

Many Arctic cruise companies are committed to more sustainable practices that reduce their environmental footprint. Hurtigruten, for example, is working to decrease emissions by building the first-ever hybrid-electric powered expedition cruise ships for cruising this region and others around the globe. Meanwhile, Australia-based Aurora Expeditions is a 100 percent carbon-neutral adventure travel company that accurately calculates greenhouse gas emissions, supports impactful carbon projects, and regularly updates a comprehensive emissions reduction plan.

Pandemic safety precautions 

Cruising the Canadian Arctic will be slightly different this season. The Canadian Arctic has been closed to cruise ships for the last two seasons due to the global pandemic. As cruising resumes in 2022, cruise companies are preparing COVID-19 mitigation plans to protect passengers, crew, and people who live in remote communities. 

“Each operator is required to develop a COVID-19 management plan for their vessel that encompasses the guidelines set by Transport Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada,” Bradley-Swan says. “It includes everything from pre-trip requirements to sanitization procedures on board and procedures when visiting local communities. Each vessel shares their COVID-19 management plan with communities, and they provide feedback and add to it as necessary.” 

How to plan a conscious cruise in the Canadian Arctic

When planning an Arctic cruise, choose a cruise company that is part of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). AECO helps manage responsible, environmentally friendly, and safe tourism in the Arctic and strives to set the highest possible operating standards. Some of the companies part of this association include Adventure Canada, Hurtigruten, Quark Expeditions, and Aurora Expeditions

Look for a cruise company that cultivates a connection to Arctic communities and is committed to meaningful cultural exchange. Companies that hire people from local communities as onboard ambassadors and guides provide a more authentic cultural experience and are a good indicator of their commitment to engaging and supporting Arctic communities and offering a look into traditional cultural ceremonies and practices. Some companies post a list of their staff on their websites.

Be respectful and mindful when you visit Arctic communities. Even though this is a vacation for you, these are communities where people live. Ask before you take a picture of someone or their home. Remember, meaningful cultural exchange happens when you have positive interactions and engage locals in conversation.