Cruising Seven Seas on Carbon-Spewing Sea Serpents

Cruise ship industry generates plenty of marine pollution, carbon emissions


The Mariner of the Seas, built in 2002 and revamped in 2018, is 1,021 feet long, weighs 138,279 tons, and can accommodate 4,252 passengers. It is powered by diesel, and has a maximum speed of 28 mph. (istock)

In January, even as the cruise ship industry promises to make zero-emission vessels widespread by 2030 and achieve a goal of “net-zero carbon cruising” by 2050, one of the major cruise lines is expected to unleash a 1,200-foot-long, 250,800-ton, fossil-fuel-powered behemoth.

The Icon of the Seas, soon-to-be the largest cruise ship in the world, is set to begin wreaking environmental and climate havoc early next year. The ship can hold a maximum of 7,600 passengers, plus 2,350 crew members. It will feature a six-slide waterpark, seven pools, nine whirlpools, and a 55-foot waterfall.

The monstrosity also features more than 40 entertainment venues, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, and a casino, is 20 decks high, and is five times larger and heavier than the Titanic. It has some 3,000 bathrooms.

The ship is powered by liquefied natural gas, as “part of the company’s move to a clean-energy future,” according to a story published in June by CNN.

The current title holder of the world’s largest cruise ship is the diesel-powered Wonder of the Seas, which made its inaugural voyage in 2021 and is a slightly less obnoxious 1,188 feet in length and 235,600 tons. It has a mere 18 decks.

Both sea serpents are part of the Royal Caribbean International fleet.

In 1999, the Miami-based subsidiary of the Royal Caribbean Group, which is incorporated in Liberia, was forced to pay $18 million in fines for 21 federal felonies due to dumping hazardous chemicals and waste oil in coastal waters. Corporate officials also lied to the Coast Guard and Department of Justice by falsifying oil logs to cover up the crimes.

The Icon of the Seas is 20 decks high and can hold a maximum of 7,600 passengers. (Royal Caribbean International)

The Carnival Corporation is the largest cruise company in the world, just ahead of the Royal Caribbean Group. The British-American cruise operator features 92 vessels across 10 cruise line brands. It has a long history of violating environmental regulations and has paid tens of millions in fines.

In January 2022, Princess Cruise Lines, owned by Carnival, was fined $1 million by the Department of Justice after pleading guilty to violating, for a second time, a five-year probation imposed in 2017 after it pleaded guilty to “felony charges stemming from deliberate dumping of oil-contaminated waste from one of its vessels, and intentional acts to cover it up.” The $40 million penalty in 2017 remains the largest fine for intentional pollution from a ship.

In 2019, a federal judge ordered Carnival to pay $20 million in fines for dumping plastic waste into the ocean and other environmental violations.

Carnival has also been charged with: illegally releasing about 500,000 gallons of sewage and 11,000 gallons of food waste globally; falsifying records of environmental compliance plans; illegally dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater into Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska; dumping food mixed with plastic waste in Bahamian waters; and illegally discharging oily waste off the coast of England.

In July 2001, the carcass of a pregnant humpback whale was found floating in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. An investigation concluded the animal had died of massive trauma to its skull and cervical vertebrae, consistent with a vessel collision. Princess Cruise Lines eventually pleaded guilty to failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow and safe speed while near humpback whales. Passengers and crew had spotted humpbacks near the ship, but the ship didn’t change course or speed.

Humpback whales are an endangered species protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Princess Cruise Lines paid a $750,000 fine.

Greenhouse gas emissions, wastewater discharges, engine and propeller noise, incinerated trash, and vessel strikes have a cumulative impact on the marine ecosystems these ships cruise through.

This year, between April and November, nearly 100 cruise ships were scheduled to drop anchor in Newport Harbor. September and October are the busiest months.

The Queen Mary 2, shown here docked in New York Harbor in 2021, visited Newport last month. (istock)

Among the cruise ships visiting Newport this year include the Queen Mary 2, a 1,132-foot-long, 149,215-ton ship that is part of the Carnival fleet. It can accommodate up to 2,695 passengers, and has a total of 18 decks. It is powered primarily by four diesel engines, with two additional gas turbines providing extra power when needed.

The larger cruise ships, such as the Queen Mary 2, take anchorage in the waters just outside of Goat Island, while smaller coastal cruisers utilize the pier at Fort Adams State Park.

For the larger boats, small tenders — typically the ships’ lifeboats — transport passengers from the anchorage into Perrotti Park, which helps to minimize congestion in the harbor, according to Tom Shevlin, communications officer for the city of Newport.

“This is a pretty common setup for destinations that lack the physical infrastructure or natural deep harbor required to accommodate vessels the size of cruise ships,” he wrote in a recent email.

ecoRI News reached out to the city of Newport and the state Department of Environmental Management to see if either has worked or is working with the industry about reducing its local footprint or implementing initiatives that require visiting cruise ships to be more environmentally aware.

Shevlin said cruise ships are assessed a $6 landing fee for each passenger who visits Newport. That money goes directly into the city’s Maritime Fund, according to Shevlin, and has “helped us expand our harbor infrastructure, building out facilities like pump-out stations, dinghy docks, and the City’s Maritime Center, which provides boaters access to amenities like restrooms, showers, free life jackets.”

“DEM has a role in the regulation of the cruise industry in Rhode Island, but it doesn’t relate to greening up the practices of the ships that stop in Newport, and to be clear, we don’t have a program or the budget for that purpose,” Michael Healey, the agency’s chief public affairs officer, wrote in a recent email to ecoRI News. “Our focus pertains to the harbor’s bacterial water quality.”

He noted all vessels in Ocean State waters, including cruise ships, are bound by the state’s no discharge law, which makes it illegal to pump marine sewage within 3 nautical miles of the Rhode Island coast. He said DEM’s shellfish program fecal coliform monitoring data hasn’t detected an increase in fecal coliforms when cruise ships are present in the anchorage area to the west of Goat Island.

The work of two Newport-based nonprofits founded to protect and restore ocean health, Sailors for the Sea Powered by Oceana and 11th Hour Racing, doesn’t focus on this maritime industry.

Cruise ships are beyond the current scope of Sailors for the Sea, which centers its work on individual boaters and regattas/water-based events, according to a spokesperson. Oceana has, in the past, campaigned for tighter environmental regulations on cruise ships.

While 11th Hour Racing engages with the broader maritime industry and coastal communities through a variety of projects, it has never engaged with the cruise ship industry directly, according to a spokesperson.

Cruise ship emissions include carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and diesel particulate matter. One ship can burn up to 250 tons of fuel in a single day. (istock)

The cruise ship industry, however, is on the radar of other environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, whose U.S. chapter produces an annual Cruise Ship Report Card that evaluates 18 cruise lines on four environmental factors: sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and transparency. Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival received an overall failing grade in 2022.

Royal Caribbean International has 26 ships in its fleet, not including Icon of the Seas, and last year 18 received an F for their environmental impacts. The other eight received grades of D+, D or D-.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit notes that 23 of Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships utilize scrubbers to get around climate-harming emissions. The scrubbers are used to “clean” smokestacks and reduce air pollution. But the scrubbers convert air pollution into water pollution because the toxic byproducts from the scrubber systems are discharged into the ocean, according to Friends of the Earth.

“Cruise ships are a catastrophe for the environment — and that’s not an overstatement,” according to the lead in a March 2022 blog post by Friends of the Earth. “They dump toxic waste into our waters, fill the planet with carbon dioxide, and kill marine wildlife. Cruise ships’ environmental impact is never ending, and they continue to get bigger. They once were small ships, around 30,000 tons. Now, corporations are building billion-dollar cruise ships to hold more than 9,000 people.”

The industry is poorly regulated, and few cruise ships are registered in the United States, which largely exempts them from federal taxes. A paper published in December 2021 noted the “environmental and human health impacts of cruise tourism are increasing.”

Another 2021 research paper noted the “cruise ship industry should be subject to global monitoring and effective legislation because of its continuous increasing impact on both the environment and human health.”

The paper, published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, found that cruising is a major source of environmental pollution and degradation, with air, water, soil, fragile habitats, and wildlife negatively impacted.

Cruise ships, which are often more than three football fields long, are among the largest vessels in the world, and it takes plenty of fuel to keep them moving. The low cost of heavy fuel oil, produced from leftovers of the refining process, has long made it the primary fuel source for cruise ship propulsion.

Also called bunker fuel, there is widespread concern about its continued use because of the damage it causes through oil spills, the spewing of toxic compounds, and greenhouse gas emissions. But the thick, tar-like fuel high in sulfur continues to be commonly used in cruise ships today, often blended with diesel.

It’s no surprise then that cruise ships are responsible for a significant amount of climate-changing emissions. Even while at dock, they often run polluting diesel engines to provide electrical power to crew and passengers and to keep the ice-skating rink from melting.

One of these ships can burn up to 250 tons of fuel in a single day. Research has shown one cruise ship produces about the same amount of carbon emissions as 12,000 cars. Passengers on an Antarctic cruise can produce as much carbon dioxide emissions on a seven-day trip as the average European in an entire year, according to the study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Besides CO2, emissions from cruise ships also include nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and diesel particulate matter, microscopic soot that is harmful to human health.

Each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur oxides than 13 million cars and more soot than 1 million cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA also has estimated that a 3,000-person cruise ship — small for today’s growing standards — generates 150,000 gallons of sewage a week — enough to fill 10 swimming pools. All of this human waste adds up to more than a billion gallons of sewage a year for the industry. Some of it is minimally treated before being dumped into marine waters.

Discharges of gray water from cruise ship baths/showers, sinks, washing machines, and dishwashers “can lead to oxygen depletion, spread pathogenic bacteria and viruses and increase nutrient levels in the surrounding ecosystem,” according to the Ocean Conservancy. “Higher nutrient levels can lead to toxic blooms and dead zones that can cause harmful disturbances throughout food chains.”

A 2007 study found the total amount of trash produced by a cruise ship carrying 2,700 passengers can exceed a ton a day. Today’s bigger ships have 30 or more kitchens and lots of food waste, as passengers overload at the buffet. Much of it is incinerated or dumped at sea.

No matter the size of a cruise ship, they are all dependent on water bottles because they are not allowed to have water fountains for health reasons.

As these leviathans continue to swell, so to do their wakes.


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  1. and Rhode Islanders are upset about wind mills. Anyone who cares at all about our environment should just say no to cruising! It’s the only thing that will stop them. A recent poll revealed that 3/4 of republicans are more concerned about economic development than climate change, so don’t expect governments to regulate cruise lines in any meaningful way.

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