Recently, most of my extended family took a Caribbean cruise to celebrate a milestone.
I am not an ocean person. I don’t want to go to the beach. The only previous cruise I had been on had unfortunate circumstances that prevented me from enjoying it to the fullest. I was grateful to my wife’s employer at the time for taking us in, but even that person acknowledged that there had been things that weren’t quite right.
I have also always been widely aware of some other issues that plague cruise ships, including those related to sanitation. Given that COVID-19 still exists, I was wary of exposure to the virus, especially since cruise ships had been guilty of mass infection events. Still, I agreed to go, and because a lot of my family was there, I had a pretty good time.
Ironically, the planned “downtime” while cruising gave me the opportunity to read about cruise lines and ships, as well as the cruise industry as a whole. What I discovered is somewhat disturbing. I almost started to feel guilty for agreeing to go, I felt like I was supporting very questionable practices in an industry based on inherently useless, inefficient and harmful activities.
First, while my fear that the ships were “floating Petri dishes” was supported by the facts, my apprehension did not go far enough. A better analogy might be that ships are like “floating toilets” because they sometimes, and far too often, dump sewage produced by passengers and crew into the ocean. Even though some lines have been arrested and fined for this practice, they continue to engage in it.
Then I read something I already suspected: the salaries and working conditions of some crew members are catastrophic. Of course, some try to defend the intense hours and low pay by pointing out that the pay is good for the country a crew member is from, and the cruise lines offer them the opportunity to earn, save and to improve their situation, and perhaps that of their families.
Even if it does not necessarily justify them, this argument holds, somewhat, for the salary scales. That doesn’t do much to excuse what seems to be the overall logistical, mental, and physical demands of working for a cruise line. While some try to defend these work practices, others insinuate – or outright claim – that they amount to exploitation.
And cruise ship engines are by no means “clean” or environmentally neutral. Although some are put to sea with liquid natural gas engines and some older ones have been or will be refitted to do so, most of the world’s 323 cruise ships burn high sulfur fuels – usually diesel or fuel oil.
I saw the smoke from our ship’s chimney emitting a steady stream of relatively thick smoke and I felt, even before I read about it, that the engines of the ship I was on were doing a lot of harm .
All of these deleterious things and others, there is not enough space to mention them, happen in part because there is a belief that cruises represent luxury or – at the very least – complement it and amplify it. That may be true for some people. To each his own, right?
I have no doubt that some of my favorite recreational activities or vacation ideas hurt more than I realize. But there’s something golden about cruising that, given its repercussions, makes me feel as unseemly now as it was unnecessarily risky before I knew more.
Jason Nichols is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of District 2, professor of political science at Northeastern State University and former mayor of Tahlequah.