Can Cruise Ships Help the World’s Oceans? This Famous Marine Biologist Thinks So.

Marine biologist and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle serves as the godmother of Explora Journeys’ recently launched ‘Explora I’ cruise ship. Here’s why she doesn’t think that’s a conflict of interest.

Famous marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle diving among coral

Famous marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle sees partnering with cruise lines as an opportunity to educate ocean lovers.

Photo by Amos Nachoum

As the cruise industry focuses on a decarbonized future and ocean conservation, it’s gaining what may be perceived as some unusual bedfellows. Late last year, famous marine biologist and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle joined the pack, serving as godmother of the Explora I, the first 922-passenger ship from new luxury cruise line Explora Journeys.

Explora Journeys is owned by MSC Group, the world’s largest shipping company and the parent of MSC Cruises, which has a fleet of megaships, some of which carry more than 4,000 passengers.

In an interview with AFAR in November, with the ship docked in New York for her naming ceremony, Earle, 88, says she did not hesitate when asked if she would align herself with a cruise and shipping company. She sees the Explora Journeys ships—a second is arriving this year, and there will be four more after that—as vehicles to spread the word that oceans need our collective help.

The infinity pool on the 'Explora I' cruise ship

Sylvia Earle serves as the godmother for the recently launched Explora I cruise ship.

Photo by Ivan Sarfatti

One of the common interests shared by the marine biologist and the shipping giant: coral. At MSC’s private reserve in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, which opened in 2018 on former industrial land that had been devastated by sand mining, funds from the not-for-profit MSC Foundation have gone toward coral restoration. In July 2023, the project was declared a “hope spot” by Earle’s nonprofit Mission Blue, which is dedicated to preserving marine ecosystems. The organization has similarly recognized some 160 locations globally, places critical to the ocean’s health that Earle says either need protection or are already formally protected by “champions” like the MSC Foundation that are willing to take responsibility and keep them that way.

“Ocean Cay is making a really great effort in the sea as well as on land, restoring thousands of native trees and shrubs,” Earle says.

Marine life, including loggerhead sea turtles, is now flourishing in the surrounding waters. The eco-island is also a popular destination for passengers on MSC and Explora Journeys ships.

Of course, I want to work with my fellow scientists and conservationists, but if we just keep talking to one another, we’re not going to achieve the kind of global awareness that is needed...
Sylvia Earle

Together, cruise lines not only are investing billions of dollars into new engines and technology but also are researching sustainable fuels and eco-minded solutions for the future, such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, as they look to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Still, they are often the subject of intense criticism by environmental protection groups.

The way Earle sees things, cruise lines are not the bad guys. Industrial fishing poses much more of a threat to the oceans than cruise ships, she says.

“I look at industrial fishing, where the goal is to extract wild animals and to turn the ocean creatures into money, and their footprint is even greater than what the cruise industry is often criticized for: carbon footprint, noise in the ocean, disturbing places otherwise left to themselves,” Earle explains. “Why aren’t we looking at the fishing fleets with the same kind of concern? I think we need to call them out.”

She says there needs to be a push to get more people in general to care about the ocean. Aligning with MSC is one way she hopes to get there.

MSC is “deeply invested in the ocean, and maybe there’s an opportunity to inspire people on a different level,” she says. “Of course, I want to work with my fellow scientists and conservationists, but if we just keep talking to one another, we’re not going to achieve the kind of global awareness that is needed to make decisions in the right direction.”

A camouflaged fish in the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve coral reef

Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve has been declared a “hope spot” by Earle’s nonprofit Mission Blue.

Photo by John Nussbaum

She sees cruisers as an audience primed and ready for a sustainability message.

“They’re on the ocean,” she says. “They are there to have a good time, and maybe they can have an even better time if they understand there is something they can do to maintain the health of the ocean, restore places. We want to give them some insight, to enrich the opportunities for anyone to learn more.”

She adds, “You ask why I would affiliate myself with a cruise line? MSC Foundation and Explora are already committed to making a difference in a positive way, and there’s a receptive audience. So, I say, why wouldn’t I wish to align? It’s an honor to be asked.”

On the Explora I, kids ages 6 to 12 attending the complimentary Nautilus Club youth program can participate in workshops and discussions on marine conservation, the ship’s sustainability practices, and the impact of tourism on the Caribbean and Mediterranean destinations the ship visits. There are also lectures for all passengers guided by scientists, such as marine biologists.

On a recent Explora I Caribbean sailing, the lecturer on board was Max van Aalst, a marine biologist and director of the BRANCH Coral Foundation; he showcased his work with coral restoration in Curaçao and led snorkeling excursions. Why had he agreed to join the sailing? “I said yes because it’s Sylvia Earle’s ship,” he told his audience.

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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