Northwest Passage – In the Footsteps of Franklin

Rachel Callus – Destination Specialist Arctic Travel Centre August 2023

When I returned from my 15 day Svalbard Arctic cruise in 2019, I hoped that my next Polar adventure would be the famed Northwest Passage, four years later I had the opportunity to realise that ambition.

The hunt for a sea lane between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans started as long ago as 1492 (Christopher Columbus), there were many failed attempts and finally in 1906 Roald Amundsen proved there was a sea lane – the Northwest Passage.

There are several ships offering Northwest Passage cruises including those that visit both the Canadian High Arctic and Greenland.  I was fortunate to find myself on a cruise that would retrace the voyage of Sir John Franklin. He, along with 128 of his men, departed England in 1845 with the hopes of finding the North West Passage.  His ill-fated expedition left two ships the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror permanently trapped in sea-ice and all of their crew perished. Both ships were only recently discovered; in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

Our cruise adventure began with charter flights from Toronto to Kangerlussuaq (Greenland) where our ship, the first-class vessel Ultramarine was awaiting our arrival. We boarded and soon met the Expedition Team, undertook a variety of safety briefings and finally set sail for the North West Passage – very exciting!

The next 15 days were filled with one or two Zodiac excursions (each day), landings, helicopter excursions, numerous presentations and re-caps from the on-board team of experts; which included a Marine Biologist, Historian, Ornithologist, and Glaciologist, who were all keen to impart their extensive knowledge to us all.

Ultramarine from on-board helicopter flight-seeing

We were spoilt with the Chefs serving us an abundance of delicious food from lobster, snow crab, guinea fowl and even New Zealand lamb.  Breakfast and lunch were buffet with a variety of food stations and dinner was always a la carte, coupled with a variety of wines from around the world.  The Hospitality Team were absolutely outstanding, very friendly and accommodating to guest’s dietary requirements.


There were far too many highlights for me to cover them all, here’s a selection of my favourites.

The gorgeous ‘blue lake’ of Inusuit Tasersuat, Inuit communities of Nuuk to learn about the Thule peoples, ancestors to the modern Inuit.  Sisimiut, a picturesque fishing village, north of Nuuk dotted with colour buildings and houses.  Illulissat, for its monstrous Ice-fjord in Disko Bay and a large population of Greenlandic dogs used for dog-sledding.  Later in the season, it’s a favourite spot for the Northern Lights.  We also had our first flightseeing excursion aboard one of two of Ultramarine’s helicopters to see the Greenland Ice Sheet, simply outstanding.

During the crossing of the Davis Strait from Greenland to Canada, we were privileged to have two Inuit chefs prepare a four course meal of Indigenous cuisine, coupled with their family’s story telling as told to them by their elders and Grandmothers.  We enjoyed for entrée, snow crab with dried halibut and dried beetroot served on top of a block of 25,000 year old ice! Second course was lamb with traditional local herbs.  Reindeer and fresh halibut was served for the main and traditional Greenlandic cake for dessert.  This was definitely a highlight of the cruise to have two young chefs, passionate about their local foods and traditions, serve up a treat.


Flight-seeing from Ultramarine

Canadian High Arctic:

We reached our furthest point north in Baffin Bay at 75.10 degrees north.  A lot of excitement in the air as we were now in the high Canadian Arctic.   Not long after, the first of 15 polar bears would be sighted, a mother with her two cubs.

As mentioned in the last newsletter we also saw a Blessing of Narwhal (just 80 of them) and Beluga whales (approximately 200).

Devon Island offered the chance for a nice trek to stretch our legs and visit the beautiful waterfalls.

The traditional polar plunge was offered and around 25 guests and crew were excited to be a part of it and around 10 courageous plungers went back for a second time!

A sunny afternoon was spent at Arctic Bay to watch the local Inuit Canadian kids from the local dance school perform a variety of Scottish dances, there were a couple of the girls who were standouts with their amazing foot work.  Later on they decided to test their hockey skills in a game against our Expedition Team!  The smiles, said it all.

Poseidon Only - Polar Bear Cubs

An evening paddle-board at Elwin Inlet with the sun still shining at 7.30pm was a lovely way to get on the water and under our own steam!  The sky was bright blue and cloudless and the backdrop was beautiful cliffs, ready for exploring.

Beechey Island; It was sadly too windy for us to get ashore (as with all polar expeditions, the local conditions dictate, be that wind, ice or rough seas, what’s safely possible), but doing a sail-by, we could see the headstones of three of Franklin’s deceased comrades.

On Port Leopold, Somerset Island, still stands a Hudson Bay Co. outpost and which once served as a harbour for whaling ships.   Our Historian Ross, discussed James Clark Ross’s search with his expedition ships Enterprise & Investigator in 1849 to search for Sir John Franklin (it’s an incredible story).

The couple of days at sea were spent visiting the Captain’s Bridge, Arctic Auction, trivia and karaoke nights.  The Expedition Team went out of their way to keep us entertained.


Kayaking and Paddle Boarding at Elwin Inlet


Ultramarine Arctic Bay  Nunavat Territory Canada

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