Sustainable visions for the expedition cruise sector

CFR asks four senior executives from expedition cruise lines about their environmental goals

Sustainable visions for the expedition cruise sector

Swan Hellenic

Swan Hellenic is supporting crew well-being by designing large spaces for them to relax

By Alice Chambers |

Expedition cruising gives guests a unique opportunity to get up close to the natural wonders of the world, explore remote destinations and see everything from majestic Emperor penguins and playful orcas in Antarctica, to prehistoric iguanas and giant tortoises in the volcanic landscapes of the Galápagos Islands.  

But as the effects of climate change continue to unfold rapidly, many of these places and species of animals are at risk of partial or total destruction, jeopardising the long-term future of the expedition sector. Conscious of this threat, the expedition cruise sector aims to act fast to protect the future of both the planet and their business. Here, a selection of senior cruise executives from four expedition cruise brands give an insight into how they are upgrading their ships, itineraries, and social, economic and environmental initiatives to reach their sustainability goals. 

What key sustainability goals have you put in place to improve the social, economic and environmental performance of your expedition cruise brand?  

Dolf Berle, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions: Ensuring that guests appreciate the culture, people and wildlife of the destinations that we take them to has become a core value in Lindblad Expeditions’ itinerary planning. Sustainability is a cornerstone of our brand. We will continue to be carbon neutral, free of single-use plastic, and use the cleanest fuel available. We are also continuing to invest in local businesses, organisations and individuals in the agricultural and artisanal sectors, as well as expanding our science and education programmes.  

Wassim Daoud, head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at Ponant: Ponant’s ‘Blue Horizon’ roadmap focuses on reducing emissions across our fleet by 2025. In addition, we aim to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 15 per cent by 2026 and 30 per cent by 2030, as well as eliminating single-use plastics onboard and ashore. We also aim to ensure that 85 per cent of onboard waste is recyclable and plan to participate in the Blue Nature Alliance initiative to create 18 million square kilometres of protected marine areas by 2025. 

Hayley Peacock Gower, chief marketing officer at AE Expeditions: As founding members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), AE Expeditions cares deeply about decarbonisation. Our sustainability initiatives are focused on minimising our footprint, educating others, supporting people and communities, and protecting the environment. One of our key goals is to instil the hope of protecting our planet in our passengers so they continue to be advocates for sustainability when they return home.  

Andrea Zito, CEO of Swan Hellenic: Swan Hellenic’s main objective is to visit destinations without disturbing the environment. We achieve this by designing our ships to be as sustainable as possible – incorporating everything from waste heat management systems to reusable water bottles. Due to the supply chain for alternative fuels and our seasons in the Arctic and Antarctica, we are limited to the type of fuel that we can operate on but we make sustainable choices whenever we can to balance this. 

Expedition brands pride themselves on visiting remote (and often environmentally protected) destinations. What technologies or solutions have you invested in to ensure that your ships have minimal impact when they’re sailing, and anchoring or berthing, in these areas?  

DB: The overarching goal of any expedition is to observe a natural ecosystem without disrupting it, which can only be achieved with considerable care to the area’s inhabitants. Smaller ships are less disruptive to wildlife and produce less emissions, so we have made significant efforts to limit the size of the vessels we send to remote places with fewer than 100 guests onboard many of our voyages. In addition, our crew has been trained how to conduct our voyages with the greatest care and respect, informed by our more than 50 years exploring many of these delicate ecosystems  

WD: The more technologically advanced a vessel is, the less it will pollute, so we’ve invested over €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in our fleet. All Ponant ships operate on small guest capacities and are equipped with electric-powered engines. Our newest polar exploration vessel, Le Commandant Charcot, is also able to operate on LNG power. Plus, it has shore- and wind-power capabilities to reduce the emissions it produces, as well as an innovative selective catalytic reduction filter system and wastewater treatment facilities. 

HG: Our vessels feature an Ulstein X-Bow, which is an inverted bow that cuts through the water. This enables faster transits through sea passages, reducing our fuel consumption and the number of vibrations that the vessel projects underwater. This, in combination with Rolls-Royce dynamic stabilisers, offers unrivalled stability and comfort on ocean crossings. Both of our vessels can also stay in position using virtual anchoring – which holds the ship’s set position on the water without lowering anchors – in protected areas. 

AZ: We have Tier III engines to reduce our production of nitrogen oxides and use hydrodynamics to maximise heat recovery onboard. Our dynamic positioning, however, is what allows us to keep position without harming the environment by anchoring on the seafloor. The ships are also being prepared to receive a battery package upgrade of up to three megawatts, which will allow us to travel slowly, noiselessly and emission-free through wildlife sanctuaries.  

What other initiatives do you have in place to conserve the health and biodiversity of the waters you sail in, or the destinations you visit? Can you share any examples of how particular initiatives are helping? 

DB: Every itinerary undergoes a rigorous screening process to ensure we can protect the biodiversity of the waters we sail in. One example is how we craft our menus to avoid using seafood grown via non-sustainable methods. To help conserve marine life, we have increased the volume of invasive and predatory fish on our menus and have stopped using single-use plastics. To reduce our carbon footprint, we source our ingredients as locally as possible – for instance we use 40 tons of food grown by local farmers in the Galapagos Islands annually.  

WD: Regardless of the destination, we follow rigorous protocols for each disembarkation to ensure we have a limited impact on the places we visit. Ponant is also an executive member of the IAATO and AECO associations, so follows protocols from each to reduce its environmental footprint. In June 2019, we created The Ponant Foundation, which enables us to support several research, awareness and conservation projects to protect oceans, polar regions and communities.  

HG: Our Green Program was developed in partnership with our partner and hotel management experts Anglo-Eastern Leisure Management (formerly known as CMI Leisure) with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of our expeditions. We’ve implemented various actions, including reducing single-use plastics, improving our waste management practices, adopting more environmentally friendly products in bathrooms and in laundry facilities, and building a more sustainable supply chain. We’re also raising awareness of non-sustainable fish farming via a ‘Sustainable Sea Day’ on selected itineraries. 

AZ: We have partnered with the SETI Institute to assist with the collection of scientific data and help monitor forms of life in areas with extreme weather conditions like the Arctic and Antarctica. SETI then compares this data to data taken on other planets to understand the chance of life beyond Earth. Our Citizen Science Programme also involves monitoring whales and assessing the sky to help conservation efforts and to respond to climate change. The installation of laundry filters across our three ships is also preventing microplastics being discharged into the ocean.  

How do you incorporate social well-being into crew management and the guest experiences? 

DB: We carry out extensive research with local leaders, scientists and educators before creating our itineraries. We then craft training for our teams and develop the educational content for our guests. Most of our expedition leaders and naturalists hold advanced degrees in science conservation and are established individuals in their fields. We’ve found that guests connect with our experts so much so that they will travel all over the world to join expeditions led by these specialists.  

WD: Annual interviews for all our employees help us to evaluate individual development opportunities and training needs. Through our Ponant Academy and new ‘Ponant Women’ programme, we are also developing an inclusive vision for our crew. A good work-life balance is crucial so we provide a choice of up to three days working from home per week for shoreside staff and free medical support for onboard staff. We find that when we prioritise the well-being of our crew, it enhances the guest experience.  

HG: We encourage our guests to participate in the scientific research that we carry out onboard. This, alongside lectures and shore expeditions in Zodiacs, expands their understanding of the destinations that they visit. Our aim is for guests to finish their cruises knowing more than when they stepped onboard and to become ambassadors for the planet. Also, we’re particularly proud to champion female scientists in our newest ship Sylvia Earle where each public deck is named after ground-breaking female conservationists.  

AZ: For the crew, we have designed large spaces to relax and provided extra Zodiacs to carry out private expeditions, all with the aim of supporting their well-being. Meanwhile, we are working on developing a well-being food menu for guests so they can always choose a healthy option. We are also discussing the possibility of creating a well-being programme which will offer fitness and mindfulness activities for them to participate in during days at sea.  

What are your biggest sustainability achievements to date and what is your top environmental priority for 2023? 

DB: Lindblad Expeditions has raised more than $20 million towards protecting oceans and wildlife, funding research and supporting local communities. From onboard technology to sustainable food sourcing and zero-waste policies, we are proud of the current initiatives that we have put in place. Instead of a singular sustainability priority, we will enhance our multidimensional approach by continuing to explore new ways to reduce our carbon footprint and protect marine life via alternative fuels and design choices such as hull coating.  

WD: Ponant’s biggest achievements include the complete removal of single-use plastics and heavy fuels from our fleet. We are also proud to have installed selective catalytic reduction systems onboard nine of our 13 ships. Moving forward, we will develop a corporate energy management plan that will consider Scope 3 emissions as well as reduce our carbon footprint by three per cent compared to our 2022 figure. Obtaining the Green Globe certification is also a key priority.  

HG: We hosted the Antarctic Climate Expedition onboard Sylvia Earle in February 2023, which addressed the warming climate and loss of sea ice in the southern polar region. Passionate expeditioners and leading scientists helped to formulate 23 resolutions to inspire change for global net-zero emissions by 2035. We’ll work towards these 2035 goals while also implementing our regional food supply programme. We’re also aiming to be B-Corp Certified by 2024 and plan to release our inaugural Sustainability Journey Report in the coming months.  

AZ: For me, our wastewater treatment is one of our biggest sustainability achievements to date as it follows the strictest standards. The best way to reduce our carbon footprint is to progress our energy conservation via battery upgrades across our fleet. So far, we’ve been operating in the Arctic and Antarctica and as we expand our itinerary offerings to new destinations across the world this year, we will explore how best to support local communities.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door. 

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