On Aug. 28, the Ortelius was scheduled to arrive in Longyearbyen. On board the expedition cruise ship are 112 passengers who, in addition to enjoying Svalbard, were filling bags with trash from beaches.
"This is the first time we've done this," said Troels Jacobsen, product and sales director for Oceawide Expeditions.
It is the first Clean Up Svalbard cruise by a foreign operator. Spitsbergen Travel arranged a similar cruise with the Nordstjernen earlier this summer but a few weeks ago it was uncertain whether the Ortelius would be fully booked. It was also unclear if the cruise would be a money-losing offering, but a week before the ship cast off from Longyearbyen it was fully booked.
"Personally, I am pleasantly surprised at how it went," Jacobsen said. "Obviously I can not say how figures had been if we hadn't added a 'Polar Bear Special,' because that was sufficiently helpful."
Born out of idealism
Efforts to initiate Clean Up Svalbard cruises took a shot across the bow last year when the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators failed to get enough support to implement them. But two operators showed a willingness for the cruises nonetheless, one of which was Oceanwide Expeditions.
Filling the ship with customers participating only in a cleanup was not possible, however, so the company's solution was to devoting half the voyage to the beach clearing and the other half to polar bear adventures.
"We had to cut a little from our ambitions," Jacobsen said. "But on the other side, the end justifies the means."
What motivated the persistence?
"We believe that it will work," Jacobsen said. "We believe that people will do a good deed and we are a little idealist, this being the first. So we have a belief in offering an experience of Svalbard while helping a good cause."
1,600 cubic meters of garbage
Svalbardposten has published numerous articles about beach garbage and the problems it presents in Svalbard. Attempts to get a specific total for the trash collected during the Hurtigruten cruise in July were unsuccessful, but since 2000 a total of 1,593 cubic meters of trash have been removed from beaches during The Governor of Svalbard's annual cleanup cruises.
This year's cruise was average with a "catch" of about 100 cubic meters.
The governor provided equipment to the Ortelius for its cleanup. In addition, the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund offers compensation for bringing such waste to Longyearbyen.
"As far as I know this is the first summer there has been 'Clean Up Svalbard cruise' or a cruise with garbage collection as a special theme," said Margrete Skaktavl Keyser, the governor's tourism advisor.
"The governor views it as entirely positive that cruise operators want to organize their own garbage cruises," Keyser said. "The governor has its trash cruise, which is for locals, where there is between 70 and 150 cubic meters of garbage collected each year. In addition, we're collecting during our other expeditions and field inspectors during the summer. Yet a completely cleared beach will usually be full of garbage after about six years. So more beach garbage collections are warmly welcome."
Skaktavl said WWF organized an environmental conference in Svalbard in March of 2001, where it emerged that Oceanwide Expeditions had been doing some garbage collection along the beaches of Svalbard for several years that tourists eventually participated in. The idea of a dedicated cleanup cruise came after scientist Geir Wing Gabrielsen published the results of a study showing 90 percent of the fulmars had plastic in their stomaches (the story was published in Svalbardposten No. 50, 2013).
"After there were discussions with AECO about whether Oceanwide would attempt a trash cruise," said Keyser, adding she hopes such cruises such as the one offered by the company become common.
"It is another commitment to the environment and a desire to show off a clean Svalbard, as it should be, and a desire to avoid animal tragedies that we see every year where animals are stuck in garbage and suffer a slow death. In addition, tourists then see and feel what happens to all the trash that goes into sea. These are important lessons they take home with them after the trip."
In addition, Jacobsen said he believes awareness of the harms caused by ocean trash has led to an increasing interest in cleaning it up. Among other things, he referred to a YouTube video currently circulating showing divers rescuing a sea turtle from a certain death after getting snagged in a fishnet.
But he cannot say with certainty whether there will be more cleanup cruises next year.
"At the present time there is nothing planned for next year," he said. "It depends on success and how in purely practical terms that is going to be feasible."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini