DSeveral decades ago, when I was a ranger in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, each cruise ship that entered the bay carried hundreds of passengers. Today they carry thousands. They no longer look like boats. They look like the boxes the ships came in, huge white, heavy, floating milk cartons.
But once they get moving, they are a force. One that occasionally hits whales.
In July 2001, the carcass of a humpback whale known as “Snow” (due to the white markings on its fin) was found floating in the bay. An investigation concluded that he had died of massive trauma to the skull and cervical vertebrae, consistent with a vessel collision. Princess Cruise Lines (bought by Carnival in 2003) finally pleaded guilty to not operate their vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow and safe speed while in the vicinity of humpback whales, in violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The passengers and crew had seen humpback whales near the ship, but the ship did not change course or speed.
Pursuant to a plea agreement, Princess was sentenced to pay a fine of $ 200,000, plus $ 550,000 to the National Park Foundation for “community service.”
Since then, the ships have grown in size.
Before Covid-19, Dream Cruises announced that it was building a ship that would carry almost 10,000 passengers and that it would have the first cruise theme park, with the longest roller coaster at sea. Many ships are already three times the volume they were in my ranger days, so large that they are cities at sea, floating condos with hospitality staff always eager to sell you a shore excursion at the next port of call.
The Majestic Princess, which will arrive in Alaska in late July, has 19 decks. Imagine: all that time in the water but never near it.
For several years, Alaska’s jeweled Inside Passage, topped by Glacier Bay, has been ranked as one of the world’s most popular cruise destinations. After a 21-month absence (including the quiet pandemic summer of 2020, when the bay’s whales seemed to thrive), some large ships are now heading north. By next year, things could be booming again, with thousands of commuters flooding the streets of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway every summer day, in and out of gift and jewelry stores. Some locals will appreciate the revenue, while others will bemoan the crowds and noise, and ask: Will it be? As usual? Growth forever? Alaska-based pilots boarding these huge ships express concern that strong winds on the beam could make them unsafe in tight boating areas.
If something changes after Covid-19 and does not return to normal, it is the cruise ships and the voracious industry that operates them. It’s an industry that co-opts communities, buys entire waterfronts, if not private islands (in the Bahamas and the Caribbean), and takes a sizable percentage of every shore excursion it sells.
In Glacier Bay, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) requires ships to suspend all competing activities (casinos, etc.) in order for passengers to participate in ranger-led activities that focus on the education and inspiration. The NPS also charges a fee per passenger, making the park one of the most solvent and potentially compromised in the NPS system. The park’s budget is now heavily reliant on cruise money that funds research, salaries, and park development. While only two boats are allowed in the park each day, there is no limit on their size. Some would call this “industry capture”, in which a regulatory authority is beholden to an industry it is supposed to regulate.
After Holland America’s Westerdam ship accidentally downloaded 22,500 gallons of greywater in Glacier Bay in 2018, the state of Alaska fined the company $ 17,000. The NPS fined him $ 250.
According For the Ocean Conservancy, greywater discharges “can lead to oxygen depletion, spread pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and increase nutrient levels in the surrounding ecosystem. Higher levels of nutrients can lead to toxic blooms and dead zones that can cause harmful alterations along food chains. “
Holland America, like Princess, is a subsidiary of Carnival. Glacier Bay, on the other hand, is not only a national park and reserve, but also a United Nations biosphere reserve and a world heritage site. Very few places can boast such international recognition. Those that do deserve strict protection and the utmost respect.
That is why things must change.
Few of today’s large ships are registered in the US, which largely exempts them from federal taxes. If they are going to operate here, take up dock space, burn large amounts of fossil fuel, and dump their waste in sanctified areas and other waters close to shore, they should be required to register in the US, buy carbon offsets, go as green as possible, pay federal taxes, obey laws and high safety standards, and in the event of a violation, pay hefty fines if they don’t lose their right to sail to places like Glacier Bay. Forever.
It is time for the federal government to limit the size of ships allowed in American waters. Make them load more responsibly, not more passengers. For those who are already too big, buy them and turn them into dockside homeless shelters, veterans care centers, and marine research labs. Those still in service should be encouraged to focus more on education and less on entertainment. They should employ historians, scientists, naturalists, and indigenous peoples whose ancient homelands the ships pass through.
Am I anti-cruise? No. I am anti-excess, pro-moderation.
I have fond memories of my days as a ranger at Glacier Bay, telling stories and sharing information. Thanks to boats, thousands of people can visit Glacier Bay without setting foot on land. They can have profound experiences. “It’s so big and beautiful,” said a woman as we stood together on the side of the ship, her eyes drinking in a majestic blue wall of ice, a tidal glacier, just a quarter of a mile away. She added: “Thank God for our public lands.”
Later, a man said to me: “Tell me, rangers, these mountains that you have here … are they worth anything?”
“They give life to the glaciers that sculpt this bay,” I replied. “They are also important to the indigenous Tlingit, whose heritage stems from this place.”
“No, no,” he said. “I am talking about minerals and mining. I mean real wealth. “
This summer, independent travelers are arriving in Alaska before the big ships return, some to Glacier Bay. There, in Bartlett Cove, near the park headquarters, they discover the complete skeleton of a humpback whale, known as Snow, 45 feet long, mounted on the ground in an elegant arc, as if it were flying. After much of his body decomposed on shore, park staff and volunteers, including school children, donated more than 1,000 hours to clean his 161 bones. The money Princess paid in restitution was then used to build an open-sided outdoor pavilion and to re-articulate Snow into a work of art.
Visitors stand before her, often in awe. They read quietly about his life and death and get rich. Not because they were entertained.
They have been educated.
A former ranger in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, Denali, and Katmai National Parks, Kim Heacox is the author of many books. Portions of this opinion piece are drawn from his Alaska memoir, The Only Kayak and Rhythm of the Wild
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism