Am I a Whale Killer?

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

The International Whaling Commission reports that “Many species of whales and dolphins can be vulnerable to collisions with vessels, or”ship strike.”

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.”

Water Pollution

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.

Air Pollution

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.


Related Stories:

Where’s the EPA When Our Water Is Full of It?

What’s in Your Water? Nuclear Waste, Coal Slurries and Industrial Estrogen

No Matter How You Slice It, Humans Are Responsible for Coral Reef Decline



Jane Mckenzie
Jane Mckenzie5 years ago


Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Magdika Cecilia Perez

terrible - there must be a sound that boats could emit to let whales know they're around

Doug G.
Doug G5 years ago

It seems as though Ms. Hoffman would have done all these species a favor, if she would have chosen not to go on a cruise in the first place, thus denying one more cruise operator a little profit, which might hasten the end of this extravagant waste of resources and potential damage to the marine environment.
Worrying about the damage after the fact is meaningless.

Margarita G.
Margarita G5 years ago


Nadine H.
Nadine H5 years ago

No Cruise's.

Lori Ann Hone
Lori Hone5 years ago


Mary B.
Mary B5 years ago

Let's retire most of the cruise ships. They could be turned into floating hotels and healing spas.They could easily unload their waste when they're docked. They only need to go about a mile off shore.No reason why they can't be made as energy efficient and green as any on land building.
Where do they put those huge vessles during a hurricane?

Katie K.
Katie K5 years ago

Took one once and that was enough for me. I watched them open the valves and toss out the back what the ship no longer needed inside. Too much money to be made for them to even minutely care what is being harmed. We humans are self-centered and have a false sense of superiority and to hell with anything weaker or that stands in our way to entertainment.