Cruise Ships Often Represent the Worst of Capitalism

When cruise ships dock, a town's population can more than double. Who decides when the cost of tourism is too high?

The hull of a cruise ship
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This story was originally published as “Leviathans in the Harbor” by our friends at Hakai Magazine. It has been reprinted here with permission.

They first noticed the body when the Grand Princess loomed toward the dock in Ketchikan, Alaska. Those tasked with securing the vessel to shore spotted the limp, lacerated humpback whale pinned atop the cruise ship’s bulbous bow. Many of the passengers stepping ashore on the morning of August 9, 2017, were faced with the unfortunate sight. Some raised their smartphones and tablets; others simply shook their heads and continued on to Ketchikan’s museums, shops, and lumberjack show, or took excursions farther afield. While they were away, the body was towed to a nearby inlet so the cause of death could be determined. Did the whale die of natural causes before being struck by the Princess Cruises’ ship? Or was it a casualty of increasing cruise ship traffic? Later on, the passengers returned to the ship and continued north on a circuit that brought over a million people to Alaska that year, a small part of a global industry that served nearly 27 million passengers and took in an estimated $37.8 billion (all figures US). Over the next few days, the humpback whale briefly made the news and was shared on social media. Then, it faded away.

A short walk from Ketchikan’s docks, Dave Kiffer takes a seat in the Diaz Cafe. It is April 26, 2019, the calm before the storm—the day before Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess arrives and a new cruise ship season begins. Kiffer was born and raised in Ketchikan and occasionally finds himself in the role of unofficial historian. He supports the cruise ship industry, but like many of his fellow Alaskans, he is not afraid to ruffle feathers or speak his mind. He barely glances at the menu, which hasn’t changed much since he was a boy. He removes his trucker hat and mirrored shades and flashes a mischievous grin.

“I still remember the first day a really big ship came to town,” Kiffer says. As he recalls it, the year was 1970, and he was eleven years old. He and his father were out in their boat, heading to the oil docks for fuel. Ketchikan, then a city of 7,000 people, had seen a few “tiny” cruise ships before, but the P&O Arcadia—as long as two football fields and with room for 1,405 passengers—was a sight to behold. “My dad went around it three times and was just staring up at the thing,” he says. “It was like, what is this leviathan doing in the harbour?”

Back in the early 1970s, the city was seeing approximately 50,000 visitors per year. Around that time, Kiffer remembers a local tourism promoter standing up at a public meeting and predicting that someday the city would see a million cruise ship passengers. “Everyone laughed,” Kiffer says. The Arcadia carried about a third of the passengers arriving on the larger cruise ships these days. When the Ruby Princess arrives tomorrow, it will bring the first of what’s expected to be 1.3 million visitors this year—a 16 percent increase over 2018.

Located near the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle, Ketchikan is a remote community surrounded by emerald slopes of coastal temperate rainforest and the rich waters of the Inside Passage. It is home to tenacious and independent people accustomed to doing whatever it takes to make a go of it here.

Kiffer’s Ketchikan roots run deep. His maternal great-grandfather arrived in 1893 to mine for gold before the Klondike rush but never struck it rich. “My father’s side came in 1918,” Kiffer says. “My mother’s side called them blow-ins.” Although his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all commercial fishermen—and he fished with his father until he was fifteen—Kiffer didn’t take up the trade. He’s also the only male member of his family to have never worked in Ketchikan’s pulp mill, which closed over twenty years ago. He briefly tried logging but learned that it wasn’t for him. “You don’t often see old loggers who (a) have all their body parts or (b) can walk,” he says. “It’s a tough living.”

To help pay for college, Kiffer spent a summer playing saxophone and flute in a band aboard a cruise ship operating between Los Angeles, California, and Mexico. He returned from the south—the lower forty-eight—and worked in public radio, among other jobs, before serving as the Ketchikan Gateway Borough mayor from 2008 to 2014. He is now a city council member and freelance writer, and serves as the education coordinator at the local jail. His family owns “Alaska’s best bookshop” in downtown Ketchikan. He welcomes the cruise ship trade.

“We’re an island community,” Kiffer says. Ship-based tourism, while previously not a dominant economic force, is nothing new. “Back in the earliest days of Ketchikan, there were jewellery stores and curio shops catering to tourists. You can see it in the old photos.”

The Alaska Steamship Company offered passenger service between southeast Alaska and the lower forty-eight from 1895 until shortly after the Second World War. Canadian passenger steamships, which had also been plying the Inside Passage since the 1880s, stopped serving Alaska in 1981. Kiffer remembers the demise of old passenger steamers coinciding with the appearance of those first tiny cruise ships and then the P&O Arcadia. But local people still needed a reliable way to get around. The state-run Alaska Marine Highway ferry system was created in 1948 to help fill that gap. The cruise lines continued to concentrate solely on tourists, and the market had plenty of room to grow. Ketchikan was keen to welcome them. While some residents continued to fish for a living, the once-proud salmon cannery industry was effectively dead by 1971. After the boom and bust of the region’s other resource extraction industries—gold prospecting and logging—Ketchikan was in need of a fresh start. The rush to sell Alaska’s scenery was on.

Kiffer says the cruise ship industry brings more than $1 million a day to Ketchikan. This estimate is based on research by the state, not the industry, he says. It helps keep Ketchikan afloat. But as a former mayor, current council member, and fourth-generation Ketchikan resident, Kiffer knows all too well that every industry comes with costs. And in southeast Alaska, as in ports around the world, communities are asking some basic questions. At what point do we exceed the carrying capacity of a coastal community or ecosystem? Are cruise lines trustworthy business partners?

Cruise lines are not in the business of providing vital transportation or connecting remote communities—they run floating resorts. In 1900, German shipping magnate Albert Ballin built what is believed to be the first large commercial passenger ship designed for pleasure cruising. Conceived as a grand, luxurious yacht, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise had 119 first-class cabins, a library, and a gym. It was in operation for six years before running aground off Jamaica. While cruising for pleasure was slow to catch on, passenger ships remained a primary mode of coastal and intercontinental transportation through the mid-twentieth century. But by the 1970s, travelling by passenger ship had become largely unnecessary as modern aviation took the lead in providing long-distance travel. Why waste time on the water?

In 1970, as 747s criss-crossed the skies, approximately 500,000 people took pleasure cruises. Seven years later, while the Concorde was transporting passengers at twice the speed of sound, the sitcom The Love Boat debuted and introduced the idea of cruising to the masses. The modern cruise industry never looked back. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry promoter, projects that 30 million people will take a cruise in 2019.

Ross Klein, a sociologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, began studying the cruise ship industry in the 1990s and is now recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject. He has been called before the US Congress as an expert witness on several occasions and has published extensively on all matters related to cruise travel, including passenger safety; consumer protection; and environmental, labor, and business practices—the kinds of things you won’t find in CLIA’s promotional brochures.

Klein says that, while Alaska has many of the problems found in the world’s other cruise destinations, it’s a special case. With 35 percent of all cruise ship passengers headed to the Caribbean and the Bahamas, that region makes up the world’s largest cruise destination by percentage. Alaska is a relatively niche market with just under 5 percent. Despite that, Alaskans punch above their weight when it comes to fighting for a better deal for their port communities and working to protect their environment.

Around the world, cruise lines sell the beauty of their destinations and tout their environmental responsibility, yet they pollute the places they visit by burning sulphur-laden heavy fuel oil—bunker fuel—the gunk left over after the distillation of other fuels. It is the dirtiest fuel available. A recent report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for, a West Coast environmental NGO, found that air pollution levels on the decks of cruise ships are comparable to concentrations measured in polluted cities, including Beijing, China, and Santiago, Chile. Around the world, the sulphur from the exhaust of cargo and cruise ships combined is linked to an annual 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, and 14 million cases of childhood asthma. While in North American ports, cruise ships are required to switch to burning cleaner fuel, but they continue to emit exhaust while powering their systems. The problem is compounded when multiple ships are in port on the same day.

Recent research has also found that cruise travel makes an outsize contribution to climate change—and it begins before the ship leaves port. A single passenger flying from New York to Vancouver or Seattle (the two busiest departure ports for Alaska cruises) produces about a tonne of carbon dioxide. Double that if they’re flying round trip. After passengers board the cruise ship, the climate cost soars. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a nonprofit research group with offices around the globe, found that even the most efficient cruise ships emit three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre than is emitted by jets. The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, a German NGO, found that a mid-size cruise ship burns up to 150 tonnes of fuel per day, which releases as much particulate matter into the atmosphere as 1 million automobiles.

In 2015, in a move to restrict emissions, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) capped sulphur content in exhaust at 0.1 percent within 370 kilometres of shore in four different regions, including the North American Emission Control Area. To comply with these standards, some cruise lines have retrofitted their ships with scrubbers. These systems filter some of the sulphur and heavy metals out of the exhaust through a chemical or mechanical process that includes spraying the exhaust with water before it leaves the smokestack. This process results in a concentrated sludge. Ships are not supposed to incinerate or dump the sludge at sea but rather collect it in a holding tank for disposal on land. The ICCT, which also sponsored research that exposed Volkswagen’s diesel emissions testing scam, claims the scrubbers are converting air pollution into water pollution because, in fact, some cruise ships are dumping the waste at sea. Little is known of the effects of this sludge on the marine ecosystem. But studies have revealed that, when mixed with seawater, each molecule of sulphuric acid results in the release of two molecules of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a clear contribution to climate change.

Just one year after its sister ship, the Grand Princess, showed up in port with a dead humpback whale on its bow, Princess Cruises’ Star Princess dumped its scrubber sludge overboard—in full view of passengers, port workers, and community members—while tied to the dock in Ketchikan. The thick, black, oily substance could be seen floating on the water’s surface. That was July 23, 2018. The following week, a senior vice president of CLIA, speaking to the residents of a small cruise port in Rockland, Maine, claimed its members do not dump sludge into the ocean. But CLIA member Princess Cruises has a track record at odds with industry spin. Over nearly a decade, Princess broke the law, discharging oily waste through a hidden pipe from the Caribbean Princess on the US east coast, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. In 2016, it was fined $40 million by the US Department of Justice for the offense and cover-up.

Despite the scrubbers, there was a spike in complaints regarding air quality in Alaska ports in 2018. Nine ships violated the regulations and were slapped with fines totalling $337,000, mainly in Ketchikan. For a $37.8-billion global industry, the fines, Klein says, “are just a cost of doing business”—and a small one at that. The costs of striking and killing humpback whales—the very wildlife passengers book their tickets hoping to see—are more difficult to calculate.

Cruise ships also discharge treated wastewater (grey water and sewage) en route. The treatment systems on today’s modern cruise ships are a vast improvement over those found on older vessels. Discharging treated wastewater is legal under US federal and state law under certain conditions, but the increased concentration coming from more and larger ships passing through the same sheltered waters is causing concern. So much so that, in 2006, Alaska instituted its Ocean Ranger program, in which US Coast Guard–certified marine engineers (or those with relevant degrees) board large cruise ships staying overnight in Alaskan waters to ensure compliance with state and federal requirements pertaining to marine discharge and pollution. They watch what is being discharged when and where.

“[Alaska] is the only jurisdiction in the world where anybody is actually monitoring what cruise ships are discharging,” Klein says.

Despite the success of the program—which was created by ballot initiative and is paid for by a $4 head tax on cruise ship passengers—funding for the Ocean Rangers was vetoed in 2019 by Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, who is the subject of a potential recall initiative. The Ocean Ranger program, although in political limbo, is not dead yet. The state legislature has effectively overridden the governor’s veto, but the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has announced that it does not plan to operate the program as originally intended.

While the high-profile battle over cruise ship monitoring plays out in Alaska, what is all but forgotten is that most Alaska cruises pass though the fabled Inside Passage, which includes the sheltered waters off the coast of British Columbia. The State of Alaska issued citations for nine violations for air quality in 2018. How many did the governments of British Columbia and Canada issue that year? Has either government ever cited violations or assessed penalties for air quality, improper waste discharge, or other environmental violations? Klein laughs at the suggestion.

“Canada doesn’t have regulations to speak of,” he says, “given it doesn’t enforce regulations when it comes to cruise ships.” An independent science panel convened by the Ocean Conservation and Tourism Alliance showed cruise ships discharging wastewater in a marine protected area of British Columbia’s Inside Passage. “This did not appear to capture the attention of Canadian authorities.”

Canada has only issued two citations for environmental violations since 1992, according to Klein, who keeps a list of offenses. During that time, the number of citations issued by the State of Alaska was in the hundreds. He says cruise lines take advantage of Canada’s history of weaker environmental laws, monitoring, and enforcement, and of the fact that grey water can be dumped anywhere in Canadian waters. He calls British Columbia “the toilet bowl” of the West Coast.

For the cruise ship industry, environmental oversight can pose a minor irritant but no real threat to profits. There are hard costs to operating vessels of such magnitude: fuel and labour, for example. One way cruise lines keep costs down is by burning cheap bunker fuel. Another is by minimizing wages. Cruise passengers want deals but expect to be catered to, and that requires lots of staff. This feat is made possible, Klein says, by underpaying and overworking crew members.

International labour regulations do exist, but they are supposed to be enforced by flag states (the countries ships are registered in). In practical terms, labour laws are not enforced on cruise ships, Klein explains, and cruise lines employ whoever is willing to work the most hours for the lowest pay. Klein’s research has found that cruise ship workers earn as little as $500 per month. They do get room and board, but many workers find the food provided either inadequate or unacceptable. Waitstaff and room stewards earn more, but they could be working six to ten months without a single day off. “The working conditions are not humane,” he says. “People will talk about how they got a cheap cruise—the reason they got a cheap cruise is because it’s on the back of the worker from the developing country.”

This pattern of exploitation is also part of the playbook when cruise lines deal with port communities. There are an estimated 1,000 cruise ports around the world. Instead of regional or national ports banding together to get better terms for port authorities and communities, cruise lines pit them against one another, then successfully divide and conquer.

“They’ll threaten islands with taking away business,” Klein says. He points to the island of Grenada, boycotted for years by Princess Cruises’ parent company, Carnival, after the country instituted a $1 per passenger fee—required by the World Bank—to fund a garbage reception facility to deal with cruise ship waste. Carnival announced that it wouldn’t pay it and abruptly pulled Grenada from its schedule. “They push their weight around . . . This is an arrogant industry.”

The cruise industry’s business practices reach far beyond the dock. At each port of call, cruise passengers are given a map listing shops with the “best prices, guaranteed,” Klein explains. The practice evolved from a classic nudge nudge, wink wink kickback scheme to cruise directors before it became an established industry-wide practice. The price to be listed on those maps can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Klein warns port communities and the media about accepting economic impact figures provided by the industry; his research has found that insider reports overstate revenues and do not take into account hidden fees.

“I think the cruise industry, as it is today, is the epitome of capitalism run amok,” Klein says. “They own the rail cars in Alaska. They own the buses. They own the tour boats. They own the hotels. This is pure colonialism.”

Aboard the Ruby Princess, passengers are taking in magnificent views of fjords and waterfalls along the coast of British Columbia. Some are also on the lookout for whales. This time of year, humpback whales are migrating from Hawaii to their summer feeding grounds here and in southeast Alaska, where they feed on schooling fish such as capelin, herring, and lance. At this stage in the journey—three days at sea—passengers are also looking forward to Ketchikan, their first port of call.

The Ruby Princess is a sister ship to the Grand Princess, the ship that pushed the dead humpback whale into port two years ago. At a length of 290 metres, it is a horizontal skyscraper—surpassing the height of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid—with a passenger capacity of 3,080 and a crew capacity of 1,200. Spread over nineteen decks are 1,542 guest cabins; four pools; seven whirlpool spas; a dozen dining rooms, restaurants, and snack bars; eight theatres and lounges; plus a casino, an art gallery, a fitness centre, and shops. And yet, the new Royal Caribbean International ship Ovation of the Seas, which makes its Alaska debut this season, dwarfs the Ruby Princess at 347 metres long—just shy of the roofline of New York’s Empire State Building. To serve 4,905 passengers, Ovation of the Seas houses 1,500 crew members and features a basketball court, skydiving and surf simulators, a rock-climbing wall, and bumper cars.

As the number of cruise ships arriving in Alaskan ports increases, so does the number of passengers. Most ships have a capacity of between 3,000 and 4,000. On average, between three and six cruise ships stop in Ketchikan every day, May through September. This can mean upward of 10,000 cruise ship passengers wandering the sidewalks and streets of Ketchikan, a city of around 8,000.

The day before the cruise ship season begins, workers are busy pouring concrete in downtown Ketchikan to widen the sidewalks near the port. But the Ruby Princess will tie up to the dock in nineteen hours. The work won’t be completed anytime soon. For the time being, passengers will have to compete for diminished sidewalk space with the locals as they navigate construction zones. A small inconvenience for residents perhaps, but a fresh aggravation to add to the pile.

In 1975, G. V. Doxey developed the Irritation Index, or Irridex, to illustrate the changing relationship between communities and the tourism industry. Essentially, it shows that locals have positive feelings toward tourists when there aren’t too many—even euphoria about the benefits they can bring. But as the number of tourists increases, that euphoria devolves to apathy, irritation, and finally antagonism. This is not news to anyone who has lived in, or even been to, an overcrowded tourist destination.

Venice has attracted visitors from around the world since medieval pilgrims made it a stop on their way to the Holy Land. Now, an estimated 25 million tourists visit each year and overtourism, as it’s come to be known, is threatening the very place they come to see. Cruise travel represents a highly visible and growing part of the problem. Massive cruise ships routinely crowd in on Piazza San Marco, obliterating the view of the canal from the square. As part of the No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) movement, Venetians have taken to the water in small boats to block colossal cruise ships arriving in their city. Due in part to these highly visible protests, the biggest cruise ships will be rerouted to nearby Marghera, an industrial port on the mainland.

The activists in Venice are not alone. Locals in Dubrovnik, Croatia, pushed to cap the number of cruise ships in their city to two per day. In Key West, Florida, voters rejected a referendum to approve a study on the feasibility of widening the cruise ship channel to allow for larger ships. In Spain, Barcelona, San Sebastián, and the Isla de Mallorca have all had anti-tourism and anti–cruise ship protests—part of a growing trend.

Around the world, the citizens of port communities are pushing back against the cruise ship industry. But only governments have the power to impose regulation and oversight. The State of Alaska has shown that regional governments can take action, even if the fines imposed do not ultimately change behaviour. Alaska has also shown that government leadership cannot be taken for granted. All the while, the cruise ship industry continues to grow. It all has locals asking, louder than ever, “When is enough, enough? Who gets to make the call?”

At the Diaz Cafe, Dave Kiffer’s fifth-grade teacher makes her way to his table. She is one of many who wave or stop by to say hello. Kiffer says there are two types of people living in Ketchikan, and by extension two types of Alaskans: those who stay for five years or less and those who stay forever. He knows the old-timers, and they know him. They have seen him grow up and go through his various incarnations, including his term as borough mayor, during which he went toe to toe with the likes of Sarah Palin. He supports the cruise ship industry but does not sugarcoat the trade-offs.

“I know a lot of people just refuse to come downtown in the summer because it’s so chaotic,” he says. “And I get that . . . If there are cruise ships in town and buses or whatever, suddenly your whole life gets more complicated, and that causes a lot of frustration.”

And it’s not just the cruise ship passengers. Kiffer says cruise ship crews tend to take their precious time off in Ketchikan as well. So, in addition to upward of 10,000 tourists moving around, there could be thousands of crew members on shore. “Mostly, they go to Walmart,” he says, “because the food is so expensive on board.” He also sees them at smaller stores that cater to the immigrant community, where they can wire money home.

Unfortunately, Kiffer says Ketchikan has experienced diminishing per capita returns from increasing cruise ship traffic. More people are coming to Ketchikan, but they are spending less. Meanwhile, the cost of hosting them continues to rise. All those extra people put stress on city services, increase congestion, and limit Ketchikan residents’ abilities to move through and use their city. But many are resigned to living with it because it keeps the heat and lights on throughout the year and allows them to continue living in Ketchikan. Kiffer says his wife’s bookstore is the perfect example. The money it makes during the busy tourist season allows them to serve locals all year long.

But the seasonal tourist shops are not like his family’s independent bookstore. There are over thirty jewellery shops in downtown Ketchikan, and Kiffer believes that many of them are not locally owned. Most, he says, hire seasonal workers from “outside” (beyond Alaska). The day before the season begins, they have little time for this journalist’s questions about their business models. Locals have been known to call them “pirates of the Caribbean” because the same people sell the same products in the Caribbean cruise market. Each year, as the last cruise ship of the season leaves the dock, they shutter the shops and take off in what’s known as “the running of the U-Hauls”—the race to load their jewellery and catch the first barge out of Ketchikan on their way to Miami, Florida. Kiffer suspects that many of these shops are owned by companies affiliated with the cruise lines, as Klein’s research suggests, although he has yet to find the “absolute smoking gun.”

Seasonal workers taking local jobs isn’t the issue, Kiffer says, because in Ketchikan almost everyone who wants a job has one. The real problem, he says, is that any local business that wants to be listed on the official cruise ship maps must pay a fee, which he has heard is steep. He points to Creek Street, Ketchikan’s colourful, well-preserved former red light district. It is the city’s most prominent tourist destination and a National Historic District. Locals contend that Creek Street didn’t show up on the port talks or the maps they gave out to cruise passengers for years because no businesses were paying the fee, Kiffer says. While the Creek Street district itself now appears on the maps, he says the overall problem persists.

Like the residents of Venice or Dubrovnik, many who live in Ketchikan would like to cap the number of tourists coming to their city each year. But if the city tried this, Kiffer fears it could be punished. Does he believe the cruise lines would actually cut Ketchikan?

“I just know that the cruise industry is ruthless,” he says. “It’s all about money, and they will make the best financial decision for them . . . Carnival basically bought Skagway last year. They own the docks there, the railroad; they own the town.” In fact, he says Norwegian Cruise Line has shown interest in Ketchikan. “We’ve actually gotten overtures.”

The first passengers of the season make their way down the gangplank just after 7 a.m. They are followed by a surge of people wearing everything from shorts and flip-flops to hiking boots and puffy coats under fair and clearing skies. Some march ahead, some wander arm in arm, others lean heavily on their walkers. They disembark the Ruby Princess to get glimpses of the real Alaska or to simply stretch their legs and shop.

Princess Cruises is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in Alaska in 2019. Its commemorative brochure features a robust humpback whale leaping free of the water. The first inside spread shows a handsome couple holding hands as they tread across a glacier. Although Alaska’s ports of call are interesting, they take a back seat to marketing the state’s wildlife and wilderness. But these top draws are under threat. Over the past fifty years, the annual average temperature in Alaska has increased at twice the rate of the global average temperature. Of Alaska’s 100,000 glaciers, 95 percent are thinning, stagnating, or in retreat. Up here, where climate change is already having an outsize effect, the growing disconnect between marketing and reality is becoming impossible to ignore. Even the whales are showing us that all is not well.

The humpback whale delivered to Ketchikan on a cruise ship’s bow two years ago died of injuries consistent with a ship strike. It was the second such incident reported in an Alaska port in as many years. A necropsy found that the individual, nearly severed in two, was an otherwise healthy subadult male. An international registry of whale fluke photos and biographical information did not yield a match. He’d yet to make his mark. He might have gone on to live eighty years and clock as many as 9,700 kilometres on each of his annual migrations—a cumulative distance to the moon and back.

Ship strikes remain a threat to whales worldwide. In southeast Alaska, seven collisions involving whales were reported in 2017, mostly involving smaller vessels. On average, cruise ships travel at sixteen knots and faster throughout most of the region. Engine noise coming from the back of big ships can be blocked by the vessel itself, a phenomenon known as bow null effect, rendering whales in the way unaware of the impending threat. Most cruise ships have protocols in place to help reduce the risk of striking whales, but even if alerted, the crew may be unable to change course in time. According to the NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the best way to avoid collisions is by separating whales and ships—short of that, by slowing ships to below 10 knots.

While cruise lines can’t guarantee whale sightings, they can—for now—deliver on the advertised glacier. The climax of many Alaska cruises is sailing into majestic Glacier Bay National Park, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of the largest international protected areas on earth. In June 2019, Carnival pleaded guilty to environmental crimes, including illegally dumping grey water in Glacier Bay National Park and other prohibited places, and knowingly allowing plastic, which poses a severe and persistent threat to marine life, to be discharged into the marine environment in the Bahamas. The company was fined $20 million—half as much as it had been fined in 2016 for its previous environmental crimes and cover-up. Knoll Lowney, the lawyer representing the three plaintiffs who claimed they were victims of Carnival’s environmental violations, said, “Time and time again, Carnival has shown its contempt of environmental laws and the rule of law.”

Glacier Bay happens to be the summer destination of one of the world’s most closely watched humpback whale populations. In 2013, after ten years in which the population nearly doubled, the number of humpback whales returning to Glacier Bay began a precipitous decline. In 2017, researchers counted just eighty-five individuals, a 47 percent decrease since 2013. Many of those showing up appeared abnormally skinny and malnourished. Some were infested with skin parasites. A US National Park Service report points to consecutive years of high water temperatures in the North Pacific as having a negative effect on the availability of prey and the health of ecosystems as a whole.

In 2009, Jonathan B. Jarvis, then director of the US National Park Service, said, “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced. The current science confirms the planet is warming and the effects are here and now.” Ten years on, for the whales that depend on Glacier Bay, warming waters and falling fish stocks have become a systemic threat.

It all begs the question: should we continue to travel there, like this?

The race for bigger and more opulent vessels underscores our taste for excess and drive for economies of scale. This makes cruise ships easy targets for critics of overtourism in cruise destinations around the world, where we increasingly overwhelm the very places we hope to see.

In Alaska, we’ve also set ourselves on a collision course between our desire to luxuriate in one of the natural wonders of the world and the price it pays for our vacation.

This story was reprinted with permission from Hakai Magazine.

Brian Payton
Brian Payton is the award-winning author of Shadow of the Bear, The Ice Passage, and the national bestselling novel The Wind Is Not a River. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Canadian Geographic. He lives on Vancouver Island, BC.