Should Cruise Ships Be Taking Tourists to the Fragile Arctic?

Environmentalists worry about the impact of a 69,000-ton luxury liner on the climate change–stressed region.

(Photo: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

As the Arctic melts, climate change is bringing another threat to imperiled polar bears, whales, and seals: massive, polluting cruise ships. 

Crystal Cruises, one of the world's most exclusive and expensive cruise lines, recently announced a 32-day trip through the Arctic Ocean on what it calls “the voyage of a lifetime,” filled with “thrilling adventure, privileged discovery and incomparable luxury.”

The company stresses it will take every precaution to protect the Arctic environment during the 2016 cruise aboard the Serenity. But many scientists and environmentalists argue that bringing luxury liners into the Arctic threatens animals and plants struggling to survive climate change.

The Arctic Ocean, where average sea ice temperatures are rising almost twice as fast as on the rest of the planet, is home to many threatened and endangered species, including the bowhead whale, the beluga whale, the polar bear, the caribou, the ringed seal, the harbor porpoise, and the Pacific walrus.

Warming temperatures have now made Arctic waters accessible to ships like the Crystal Serenity for a first-of-its-kind summertime luxury transit. The ship will sail from Alaska, cross Canada’s Arctic Circle to Greenland, and from there sail to New York.

“Think rare wildlife sightings of polar bears, narwhals, musk oxen and Caribou,” the company’s website says, “or exciting Arctic adventures from Zodiac landings, kayaking in protected bays, to trekking the tundra with a professional guide.”


That may sound tempting, but consider this: The Crystal ship does not operate an advanced sewage treatment system, according to Friends of the Earth, which gave the company an F on pollution discharges in its evaluation of the cruise industry's environmental impact. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, says the average cruise ship generates 21,000 pounds of sewage daily.

Popular Science magazine called Arctic cruises “environmental disaster tourism." In his book on the cruise industry, author Ross Klein noted that Serenity's carbon emissions per passenger mile traveled are three times that of a Boeing 747. Moreover, the nearly 69,000-ton ship will be trailed by a smaller vessel stocked with “adventure equipment," including a helicopter platform.

“We are concerned about Serenity’s sewage discharge in sensitive Arctic waters,” said John Kaltenstein, a marine policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. “I would be most interested to hear what Crystal intends to do with its sewage on this trip.”

Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act allows the discharge of untreated sewage. But the discharge of gray water—wastewater from galleys, showers, and laundries—is prohibited. “Gray water is environmentally harmful and is an even larger waste stream than sewage,” Kaltenstein said.  

Crystal Cruises did not respond to interview requests. But Greg MacGarva, the company’s vice president of marine operations, told The Maritime Executive that the company will “meet or exceed all environmental regulatory requirements for the regions in which our ships sail with respect to air, water, and garbage discharge.”

The line has adopted a “nothing overboard” policy. “No garbage or food waste of any kind will be thrown overboard,” MacGarva said. All other refuse, recyclable materials, and food waste will be stored on the escort vessel, according to The Maritime Executive.

(In 2003, the city of Monterey, Calif., barred a Crystal ship from entering its harbor after it discharged wastewater into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.)

Environmentalists are also concerned about the Serenity’s impact on Arctic lands. The cruise will offer onshore tours on all-terrain vehicles, which emit toxic exhaust and can damage terrain and wildlife habitat.

"Crystal has pledged to use ultra-low-sulfur marine gas oil for this transit, which should be lauded," said Kaltenstein. "It produces far fewer particulate and black carbon emissions when combusted than heavy fuel oil, which is the type of fuel almost always used by larger vessels when operating in the Arctic.”

That, though, begs a bigger question: If Crystal can ply the waters north of the Arctic Circle, then why not Carnival, Princess, or other major lines? The answer would seem crystal clear.

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