Can cruising be green? These eco operators are starting to make waves

Adventure cruise operators are taking active measures to ensure a more sustainable future — from hybrid batteries that reduce CO2 emissions to working with organisations to alleviate passenger impact.

The view from the Norwegian Coastal Express, also known as Hurtigruten, on its route from Bergen to Kirkenes in Norway.

Photograph by Alamy
By Simon Usborne
Published 19 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT

In late January of 1966, a Swedish-American travel agent called Lars-Eric Lindblad led a group of 52 paying guests aboard Lapataia, an Argentinian naval ship that he chartered for a voyage to Antarctica. On that ship — and from 1969 on the much plusher, purpose-built Lindblad Explorer — passengers wore bow-ties as they dined on lobster while breaking ice on the continent known as the White Desert. 

Antarctica had, until then, been the preserve of scientists, polar explorers and penguins. In adding it to the map for wealthy tourists, Lindblad was a good half century ahead of his time. The cruise industry would grow to such a huge extent, that ships are now capable of carrying up to 7,000 passengers. But the ‘expedition’ or ‘adventure’ cruise that he pioneered has only recently built up a head of steam.

Some of the biggest cruise lines are today competing with specialists to court growing demand for experiences that take the comforts of classic itineraries to more remote seas, on smaller ships. “Antarctica is still the number one destination,” says Edwina Lonsdale, an industry veteran and managing director of Mundy Cruising in London, which started selling cruises in 1970.

In 2012, Lonsdale launched the spin-off Mundy Adventures, the UK’s first adventure cruise agency. “But it’s just over the past three or four years that we’ve seen this huge build programme,” she adds. Even among the handful of high-end adventure lines Mundy works with, berth numbers have almost doubled from a pre-pandemic high of more than 18,000 to a projected 30,000 by 2025. “It’s extraordinary,” Lonsdale says.

With such growth comes a new dimension to the vexed question of sustainability. Adventure cruises offer access to stunning but often imperilled regions (Londsale says the Galápagos and the Arctic are the next most in-demand destinations). They often require more and longer flights to get to and from the ships. And, per passenger, the impact of smaller ships can be worse than the giant liners that ply the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
Yet demand for new ships is also giving cruise lines an opportunity to research and build more sustainable vessels and practices — and market their sustainability claims in a more environmentally conscious world. “There’s this disconnect between conservation and cruising, but when you dig deeper, the cruise industry is developing technologies in a much more focused way, and with higher investment, than, for example, building hotels on the Galápagos Islands,” Londsdale says.

While the pandemic was a disaster for the cruise industry, Londsdale says it boosted demand among older would-be cruisers, in particular for bucket-list adventure experiences — despite prices that tend to be about double those of bigger cruise ships of comparable quality and comfort. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest cruise industry trade association, nine of the 16 ships its members were expected to launch in 2022 were classed as expedition ships.

In December 2021, new Norwegian cruise line, Havila Voyages, launched the first of four ships that are at the front of this new wave. The Havila Capella now sails the classic Bergen to Kirkenes route up and down the west coast of Norway, well into the Arctic Circle. It looks like a typical ship but rather than relying on highly polluting marine fuel, or relatively cleaner diesel, the Capella is a hybrid. An 86-ton battery pack — purportedly the largest found on any passenger ship — gives it the electric capacity of more than 600 top-range Teslas. The batteries, which are designed to be recharged from the grid while Capella is in port, ideally via renewable energy, mean the ship can sail almost silently for up to four hours. The vessel otherwise runs on liquid nitrogen gas (LNG). Havila claims its hybrid system cuts NOx emissions by around 90% overall, and CO2 emissions by around 40% compared to comparable ships running on heavy fuel. 

“The fact that we can run for four hours on a battery is revolutionary,” says Sandra Ness, Havila’s head of climate, environment and expeditions.
Havila is not alone in going down the hybrid-LNG route. Its local rival Hurtigruten is building or converting several ships that use the technology, while in 2021 the French cruise line Ponant took delivery of its sparkling new Le Commandant Charcot, a 123-cabin ship also powered by batteries and LNG. The polar class ship sails to the geographic North Pole, Greenland, the Svalbard archipelago, the Bellingshausen Sea and the Larsen Ice Shelf. Five of its 16 ships that launched in 2022 ran on LNG, according to CLIA.  

Blue-footed boobies, one of three booby species living in the Galápagos.

Blue-footed boobies, one of three booby species living in the Galápagos.

Photograph by Alamy

Going greener

Adventure cruise lines are increasingly also burnishing their green credentials beyond the engine room. Ponant’s new ship has hi-tech stabilisers that mean it no longer needs to damage the seafloor with heavy anchors. New hulls are designed to slip through water with less drag, improving fuel economy. “We use the surplus heat from the LNG to heat up our rooms and water,” Ness says. Havila’s smaller ships make it easy to bin the traditional cruise buffet, reducing food waste, while the more sustainable cruise lines have programmes to reduce plastics use.

When you’re sailing the relative minnows of the cruise ecosystem, advantages of scale also extend to shore, where the biggest ships have sparked fraught debates about overtourism in destinations such as Venice. There are also increasingly strict rules in more remote destinations. In the Galápagos, for example, no ship may carry more than 100 passengers; while in Antarctica vessels with more than 500 passengers can’t make landings. 

But the more progressive lines go further. Ponant’s ships have a capacity range of 32 to 350 passengers. “But even if we’re 200 people going to a remote area, we have to inspect and preview the limits of our activity,” says Wassim Daoud, head of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Ponant, which in 2018 announced an ongoing partnership with National Geographic Expeditions. 

Before Ponant added an itinerary that took in the Bissagos Islands off the Atlantic coast of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, Daoud says the company sent a team of scientists, social experts and naturalist guides to meet local authorities and charitable organisations. Together they established sympathetic systems for docking and disembarkation, while also assessing the possible wider impacts of passengers. The company is also funding a school on the islands, with two members of Ponant staff based there to manage the project. “We try to not only be in connection with the local population when we’re there, but also when we aren’t,” adds Daoud, who says the programme continued while the pandemic took the islands off its destination list.

Beyond the restrictions put in place by destinations, it would be easy to imagine that increasingly eco-aware consumers are driving this change. Lonsdale thinks it’s not as simple as that. “I’ve very rarely had a customer who asks, for example, ‘What’s the carbon footprint of that ship’,” she says. “When people have it in their heads they want to go on a cruise, they just want to go.” But, she adds: “I do think the fact that the expedition cruise operators are grabbing hold of this and leading the way is important to the consumer and it’s become a marketing tool.”

Le Commandant Charcot, an icebreaking cruise ship by Ponant, powered by batteries and LNG.

Le Commandant Charcot, an icebreaking cruise ship by Ponant, powered by batteries and LNG.

Photograph by Olivier Blaud

Fuelling the future

But is it enough? While a lot of the noise and apparent progress is coming from the adventure cruise sector, environmental groups say the smaller size of boats remains a problem. “Even if you have a ship that you could call ‘clean’, it’s still running on fossil fuels and per person it’s terrible,” says Sönke Diesener, Transport Policy Officer at Nabu (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union), a German non-governmental organisation that’s one of Europe’s biggest environmental associations.

Diesener estimates that per-person emissions on smaller adventure cruise ships can be up to three times as high as those of the giants. In just a few days, he says passengers in the Antarctic can easily exceed the annual emissions targets each of us would need to hit if, as nations, we’re going to control global heating.

And that’s before we consider the additional impact of flying long distances to and from remote ports. “I recently met the person responsible for sustainability at a luxury adventure cruise company about all the pledges they were making,” Diesener says. “Then the guy tells me that many of their customers use private jets to get to the ships. If you do that, it doesn’t matter what fuel your ship uses — you’ve already ruined your personal CO2 footprint.”

While a positive shift, the move to LNG is far from perfect. “It’s still a fossil fuel — it’s methane,” Diesener says. And while emissions are lower, a proportion of gas not burnt in a ship’s engine slips into the atmosphere. Over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide, according to the UN. 

Yet even Diesener welcomes the momentum being created by adventure cruise lines, many of which see LNG as a stepping stone. “This is only the start of our journey,” says Ness at Havila. The cruise line soon plans to use a liquid biogas that Ness says would reduce CO2 emissions by about 90%. Ships are already in development that will use hydrogen or methanol as fuel sources, allowing Ponant ambitiously to target a date of 2028 for emissions-free sailing.

“I think we’re very close to a tipping point where the first zero emissions cruises are available,” Diesener says. The challenge then will be to retrofit existing ships, he adds. Nabu has demanded that the whole cruise industry should be climate-neutral by 2040.

What’s not in doubt is the rewards that await for tourists who have the time and money to embark on adventure cruises. Lonsdale, who’s been on more than most, recalls an early morning wake-up call on a luxury liner in Svalbard, way north of Norway. The captain had spotted a polar bear and her cub. From a safe distance on the ship’s rigid inflatable boats, passengers watched the animals cross the ice to the water’s edge. “It was a beautiful morning with glorious sunshine and for about two hours we watched this bear and her cub leaping in the snow behind her,” Londsdale recalls. “It was just the most extraordinary experience.”

All the industry figures I speak to say that it’s the chance to witness species and regions under threat, backed up with the expertise of the onboard naturalists and guest speakers increasingly demanded by adventure cruise passengers, which justifies the endeavour. In this regard, Lars-Eric Lindblad, who died in 1994, 15 years after his son launched the still thriving Lindblad Expeditions cruise line, was also ahead of his time. In an age before mass tourism, before the first international climate agreements — and long before David Attenborough’s Blue Planet — Lindblad saw his cruises as a way to inspire people to care about the environment. As he’s reported to have put it himself, back in the 1960s: “You can’t protect what you can’t see”.  

Published in the Cruise 2023 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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