How Cruise Ships Impact Orcas • Friends of the Earth

How Cruise Ships Impact Orcas

How Cruise Ships Impact Orcas

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Southern Resident Killer Whales and other whale species are struggling to survive. These iconic creatures face continuous stressors — from lack of food to increased noise in their habitat — and cruise ships are adding to their stress and ultimate population declines. 

How cruise ships impact orcas are quite extensive. First, cruise ships use scrubbers to clean their exhaust systems. These scrubbers remove harmful Sulphur oxides and other remnants of heavy fuel oil by using water to clean their smokestacks which sounds like a good thing. However, this results in toxic cruise ship wastewater which is then dumped into our ocean waters, filling it with carcinogenic substances from heavy fuel oil. Another way that cruises impact orcas is through their underwater noise. This makes it difficult for orcas to find and hunt their prey — which is already scarce. Chinook salmon, the main food source for Southern Resident orcas, are already being driven away from their native territory due to the noise. And that’s not all. Orcas are highly social animals and the noise from ships means they can’t socialize with their pod and it impacts reproduction. 

Orca Population Shrinking

Orca populations shrinking is a true problem. The Southern Resident killer whales that reside off the West Coast have the lowest population levels that they’ve had in over 50 years. Barely 70 whales remain. Sadly, 69% of pregnant Southern Resident whales lose their babies before birth which is making it impossible for this species to recover.

Experts believe that most whale pregnancies are unsuccessful from miscarriage. These whales are starving from a lack of food. They cannot use their sonar to properly hunt. And their habitat is filled with toxins that are poisoning their bodies. 

To have a successful pregnancy a pregnant orca must eat 300 pounds of fish per day — for a gestation period of 18 months! Then after the newborn orcas are born, orca mothers have to work even harder to produce milk for their fragile infants to survive. But toxic waste and noise pollution from ships are stressing orcas and shrinking their populations.

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The Negative Impacts of Whale Watching Cruises

Mega cruises like Carnival and Disney are not the only ones that impact orcas. Whale watching cruises are a lucrative business along the coasts. In fact, globally the whale watching industry is worth over $2 billion. These boat trips take hundreds of people out to watch whales in their natural habitat. While some protect the integrity of the oceanic ecosystem, there are some bad actors in this industry as well. These bad actors are putting the survival of marine animals at risk. The impacts and risks whales face from the unethical whale watching cruises include:

  • Fast changes in direction to avoid vessels
  • Deeper and more frequent dives to avoid vessels
  • Confusion that the boats are predators
  • Natural behaviors are interrupted which can cause feeding or resting to suffer
  • Disruption in rearing their young including mothers not producing enough milk
  • Reduced reproduction
  • Mortality through collisions

The problem does not stem from a cruise being out in their habitat. One boat occasionally has minimal impact. But these whale watching excursions can happen up to 10 times a day in the same location. And there’s no regulation on the frequency of their time in the water or speed as they’re passing through – only guidelines. 

Cruise Ship Polluting Waters

Imagine if you will a scenario. You live in a beautiful condo complex and have selected a unit on the bottom floor. It’s spacious and vibrant. But your upstairs neighbor is noisy. The floors and walls are constantly shaking. You can’t hear the timer for your oven because the noise is too extreme, leading you to burn the majority of your food. But your noisy neighbor doesn’t stop there. They also invite all their friends over to party (how else would they be making all that noise) and everyone begins to smoke. Your once beautiful condo is now filled with the carcinogenic air from hundreds of cigarettes. This happens day in and day out.  

What would you do? Try to move and escape the noisy neighbor and toxic air? Pop outside for some fresh air? You’d likely have opportunities to escape this situation. But orcas do not. No matter where they are at within the oceanic ecosystem, they face noise pollution and toxic water. Cruise ships pollute waters with noise. These floating metropolises have machinery that radiates noise through the water. And thanks to their tight schedules, when they go faster the noise they generate gets louder. 

Cruise Ship Dumping

Cruise ship dumping has also become commonplace. Cruises are notorious for producing and dumping excessive amounts of sewage and other toxic wastewater into the oceans. 

Greywater from sinks, showers, and laundry facilities aboard is dumped into the ocean. Scrubber wastewater is dumped into the water. And what do you think happens when someone uses the bathroom? You guessed it — it ends up in the ocean. Close to shore much of the wastewater is treated to clean it up a bit, but further out to sea there are almost no restrictions on dumping this polluted water.  

Sewage from human waste (commonly called blackwater) is filled with bacteria which can adversely impact orcas — and all other oceanic life that comes in contact with it. One cruise alone can have up to 7,000 guests and 2,000 or more crew members all accumulating waste. During a one-week cruise on a ship this size approximately 210,000 gallons of human waste is generated and dumped into the ocean—and despite being treated it still contains toxins. And that’s just one cruise! Every day there are hundreds of ships floating around the earth filled with passengers (and their waste). 

Unless cruise ships clean up their act, orcas and other whale species could be lost forever. 

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