Cleaner and greener cruises

With pressure mounting for net-zero carbon cruising by 2050, cruise lines are making waves when it comes to sustainable sailings, says Lauren Jarvis

It’s vegetarian night on the MS Fridtjof Nansen, and even the most carnivorous of passengers are enjoying the sustainably sourced menu being served during my epic 27-day voyage through the Arctic’s infamous Northwest Passage with HX (formerly Hurtigruten Expeditions).

In this climatically harsh but environmentally fragile part of the world, our footprint matters more than ever: the Arctic is warming almost four times faster than the rest of the planet.

On my summer cruise from Iceland to Alaska, ice is conspicuously, and worryingly, absent, bar the odd iceberg floating by like a glistening ghost ship, as we spot polar bears, belugas and narwhals from the deck.

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HX MS Roald Amundsen in Antarctica

HX is leading the way in sustainable cruising, with two hybrid electric-powered lower-emission expedition vessels, the MS Roald Amundsen, which launched in 2019, and the Nansen in 2020. Both transport up to 530 passengers in style through some of Earth’s remotest regions. Onboard, single-use plastic is out, sustainable menus are in, and researchers record wildlife sightings at sea, while guests become citizen scientists and much-needed ambassadors for this precious, magical realm.

Sustainable solutions

This year’s launch of Royal Caribbean’s behemoth, Icon of the Seas – the largest cruise vessel ever to set sail – has once again put the environmental impact of cruising in the spotlight, from the emissions expelled by gargantuan fuel-guzzling ships to the chaotic deluge of passengers flooding into destinations when these floating amusement parks pull into port.

While many companies with larger ships, including Virgin Voyages, are embracing cleaner fuels, reducing waste and ditching plastics, the expedition cruise market is making great strides in sustainability, with companies such as HX, Ponant, Viking, AE Expeditions and Quark Expeditions investing in sustainable strategies and creating itineraries which positively contribute to scientific research, conservation and giving back to local communities.

“Cruising is a carbon-intensive industry, there is no getting away from that,” admits Tudor Morgan, HX’s VP of Sustainability & Industry Relations. “HX was the first cruise line to ban heavy fuel oil (in 2009) and campaigns for its worldwide ban. To set a new standard, we are also considering a range of new, green fuel options, including biofuels made from organic waste.

“Regulation will change emissions in the medium-to-long term, but in the short term, expedition operators are responding more quickly, as the effects on the areas where we sail are very apparent and our guests are often more informed about the climate crisis and want to make a difference. Our goal is to be emission-free by 2050.”

HX offers an immersive but respectful deep-dive into the regions its ships visit, leaving guests with a good understanding of the environmental challenges and threats to local people and biodiversity, while encouraging them to participate in research and science programmes onboard.

“Every journey should have a sense of purpose and meaning,” says Morgan.

“Travellers should be adding value to and getting insight into the destination, so they come away with a changed perspective and potential change in behaviour.

“During a HX sailing, we invite guests to participate in citizen projects, from monitoring whale migration to recording cloud patterns for NASA, and join excursions which encourage a greater appreciation for the environment and habitats we explore.”

Ponant, the first cruise company to be certified as a B Corporation Company, is also innovating, investing in shore-side power connection systems and aiming for its entire fleet of 13 small ships to be equipped with these by the end of 2026.

“We have a goal of cutting our CO2-per-sailing-day emissions by 30% by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2040,” explains Ponant’s General Secretary, Patrick Augier.

Meanwhile, AE Expeditions, which has recently become a B Corporation Company, is now collaborating with Eyesea, a marine pollution mapping organisation, utilising the company’s citizen science programme to get guests involved in protecting the ocean. The company has also announced a sustainable food programme for its Antarctic cruises.

“Many of our members have already announced ambitious Environmental Social & Governance (ESG) plans, which go above and beyond UN goals to outline ESG reporting; building net zero ships; investing in alternative fuels; driving energy efficiency and reducing environmental impacts,” says Akvile Marozaite, CEO of Expedition Cruise Network (ECN) which has more than 20 expedition cruise operator members.

As HX’s Chief Scientist, Dr Meraldi, says: “We have a responsibility to safeguard the places we explore. Beyond minimising our footprint, it is our duty to leave these places better than we found them.”

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Aria Amazon for Aqua Expeditions

Top sustainable cruises

Captain Cook Cruises: Captain Cook Cruises hosts a Reef Rejuvenation programme, lead by marine biologists, on the 500-acre Tivua Private Island. A central element of this initiative is the “Buy a Coral – Build a Reef” programme that allows guests to actively participate in the seeding and growth of the coral reef surrounding Tivua. The company also has citizen science projects on each cruise.

Star Clippers: Star Clippers has added a Blue Zone experience to its winter 24/25 Costa Rica programme. The 16-day packages include a five-night pre-cruise stay in Punta Islita, an area known for its wellbeing of residents. Passengers will connect with the local community and stay in an eco-lodge before cruising.

Maple Leaf Adventures: Canadian-based Maple Leaf Adventures has added a BBC Planet Earth III itinerary, exploring with researchers newly documented humpback whale behaviours as part of the Desolation Sound & Fjords of BC sailing. New features include optional eco-action programmes where guests can participate in the movement to remove marine debris from the wild beaches of Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest.

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Aurora, Port Leopold, Canada

What’s new

New ships

Amadeus River Cruises has launched a reduced-emission hybrid vessel, Amadeus Nova, sailing a seven-night Danube Rhapsody itinerary.

Silversea’s second Nova Class ship, Silver Ray, launches in June 2024, and will be 40% more energy efficient than required international regulation.

Indonesian expedition cruise operator, SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, has expanded its series of low-impact, expert-led, small-ship cruises for 2024.

In 2024 SeaDream Yacht Club will become the first luxury cruise line to retrofit its entire fleet with shore power connectivity, enabling zero emissions in ports.

Green sailings

Clean Ship certified Albatros Expeditions is introducing new voyages, including Vikings of the North Sea and Epic West Greenland & Baffin Island.

Luxury small-ship expedition company, Aqua Expeditions, offers sustainable river and sea cruises, with new sailings in the Peruvian Amazon in 2024 and East Indonesia in 2025.

Certified Biodiversity Protection Company, Aranui Cruises, offers low-impact sustainable voyages in French Polynesia.

Where to book it

A&K Travel Group: Ecoventura has added a Galápagos Coffee & Conservation Experience to its Galápagos cruise itinerary. The sailing includes exploring Montemar’s sustainable coffee practices and learning about the farm’s role in protecting the giant tortoises.