The discovery of a Northwest Passage was pressed for to cut the traveling time of ships. Before the Panama Canal was built, ships had to go around the tip of South America to make it from the Atlantic to the Pacific or sail east and go around the bottom of Africa to finally reach the Indian and Pacific Oceans. A passage found through the waters off the far northern coast of Canada would have cut the mileage of such trips. The idea of a Northwest Passage lost some of its luster when the Panama Canal (picture above) was built and opened in the early portion of the 1900s, but still remained on people's minds. Such a passage now would enable Alaskan oil to be transported to the eastern United States and to Europe much more rapidly without nearly as much expense. It would also allow Canada to develop the wealth of natural resources located in its far northern territories and ship them to other destinations.
While many nations, such as Spain, England, the United States and Russia, had various expeditions into this region to discover a safe route between the two oceans it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the Northwest Passage was ardently pursued. In 1845, a British outfit led by Sir John Franklin (illustration above) disappeared while looking for the route. The true fate of the entire party may never be known, but enough evidence has been found over time to suggest that the ill-fated voyage was done in in part due to the contamination of its food supply and thick ice that blocked the way. In 1849, Robert McClure came from the Pacific side and made much progress before being trapped in the ice with his ship and crew. McClure spent three years in the region before finally being rescued. In 1906, the first voyage by sea through the Northwest Passage was made by the Norwegian explorer named Roald Amundsen, who took a herring boat through, needing three years to find the way. In 1957, Coast Guard cutters made the 4,500-mile journey in 64 days and the "SS Manhattan," a supertanker, completed the trip in 1969 to become the first ship that was able to transport a large amount of cargo to go through the Passage. But the time involved and the problems with ice made the idea of a Northwest Passage seem too impractical.
The route that ships take through the Northwest Passage begins from the Atlantic side when they sail into the huge Baffin Bay (picture above), which is located between the island of Greenland and Canada. The route then goes through what is called the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which is a region containing more than 36,500 islands that covers some 550,000 square miles. Of these islands 94 are over 50 square miles in surface area. Once the waterways between these islands has been traversed, the ships would come into the Beaufort Sea before making their way into the Pacific through the bodies of more open water called the Chukchi and Bering Seas. Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be an internal waterway and claims it as its own, while nations, such as the United States, feel this should be declared international waters. The melting of large areas of sea ice due to the effects of global warming have made this debate heat up as well.