The season for cruise ship vacations has arrived. I just got back from my very first cruise, and I brought with me a troubling question: just how much environmental damage did that ship cause? How much marine life did we kill?
My boat carried 2,800 passengers and 1,100 staff people and crew. It was 965 feet long. It is hard to fathom how big this thing was. You would not want to see it coming at you.
Periodically we would feel the ship hit something. I fervently hoped that we had hit a swell in choppy waters and not a dolphin or something.
Ship Strikes, Or Death by Pleasure Cruise
“Collision with a ship usually results in injury or death for the whale. Records show that as many as five blue whales are killed by ships every year, and many more deaths likely go unrecorded because blue whales are negatively buoyant and sink when they die. The annual mortality could be as high as dozens of whales, which constitutes a significant threat to this subpopulation and possibly to the entire species.”
In one incident, a ship impaled a whale on its bow unbeknownst to the crew, who discovered its body only two days later.
Sometimes ships hit endangered animals like North Atlantic Right Whales, whose numbers are down to 300-400. This species is particularly vulnerable because of “their slow movements, time spent at the surface, and time spent near the coast.”
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report that Friends of the Earth summarized: “cruise ships produce an average of 21,000 gallons per day of sewage and 170,000 gallons per day of raw graywater (which can contain as much bacteria as sewage [plus oil and grease]).” They are dumping this crap into “some of our most pristine and wild places,” which of course is where people want to go on cruises.
Friends of the Earth also produces its own scorecard for cruise lines. They measure “sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and accessibility of environmental information.” Their conclusion: “cruise lines are doing less than they can to limit the environmental impacts of their ships.” A company called Crystal Cruises earned an F “due to the absence of advanced sewage treatment systems on their ships and the inability to utilize shoreside power via plug-ins at equipped ports.” No advanced sewage treatment systems means they are dumping foul things straight into the water. Eww. Not using shoreside power means they are burning low-grade diesel even when electricity is available.
The crud cruise ships dump into the water includes bacteria and viruses, which “can sicken and kill marine life, including corals.” I feel disproportionately guilty about that one, since I had a nasty upper respiratory infection for the first few days of the cruise. I was careful to isolate myself from people who could catch it but never considered that my germs could do damage after they went down the drain.
On a typical seven-day cruise to the Caribbean, the ship emits the equivalent of one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger, which is about what that individual would produce in 18 days on land.
The massive QE2, which is no longer operating, had mileage that would send shoppers into conniptions if they saw it on a car they were considering buying: 49 feet per gallon. Yes, feet. According to the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, cruise ships “emit particle pollution equivalent to 5 million cars driving the same distance as the cruise ship travels, and that the 15 largest cruise ships emit as much sulfur dioxide pollution annually as all 760 million cars in the world.” (Other sources say there are more like one billion cars on the road than 760 million.)
Am I A Whale Killer?
Given statistics like the annual whale strike number of between five and dozens, it is unlikely that my boat hit multiple whales a day. It is much more likely that what we encountered was the maritime equivalent of air turbulence. But I certainly did my part to pollute that beautiful blue water.
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