Citizen science: Make a difference on your next expedition cruise

Travel Advice

As the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow approaches, the challenges of building a more sustainable economy come into sharper focus.

In recent months we've often spoken on this website about the ways in which the cruise industry is pouring money into green ship technology, from hybrid-powered vessels to shoreside power. But we also appreciate that, while many of our readers love getting into the nitty-gritty of maritime operations, others find their eyes glazing over at the first mention of dynamic positioning systems. A question we are often asked is: "What can I personally do to make a difference?'

The latest buzzword within the world of sustainability is the idea of a 'regenerative economy', and indeed there are those within the cruise industry, such as Lindblad Expeditions founder Sven-Olof Lindblad, advocating a move towards 'regenerative tourism'. Up until now, the guiding tenet of sustainable tourism has essentially been 'don't make things any worse', echoing the Hippocratic Oath's instruction to 'first do no harm', whereas regenerative tourism takes this a step further and looks at how we can leave destinations in a better state for future generations.

Lindblad Expeditions - Sea kayaking in Antarctica

A growing number of expedition cruise lines, including Lindblad, Hurtigruten, Ponant and AE Expeditions, are harnessing the power of 'citizen science', where cruise guests can actively participate in scientific research to aid conservation efforts. In the past, 'voluntourism' programmes offered by travel companies have often attracted criticism for being poorly conceived or even actively harmful, but the research being carried out by expedition ships is a serious scientific endeavour that represents an innovative way of leveraging the global reach of the cruise industry.

Consider the fact that, at any given time, there are up to 5,000 scientists in Antarctica, with a limited number of polar research ships available, whereas pre-pandemic there were more than 80,000 tourist visitors during the summer cruising season. It's a similar story in the Arctic, with scientists and policymakers relying largely on short-term projects funded at a national level, and with a limited number of ice-capable and icebreaker vessels available. Expedition cruise ships can play a crucial role in monitoring the fragile ecosystems of the polar regions, collecting data that will inform policy responses to environmental challenges such as microplastic pollution, ocean acidification and climate change.

Guests making scientific observations on a Quark Expeditions cruise to the Arctic

So what does this look like on board? Hurtigruten, Ponant and AE Expeditions partner with Happywhale, a marine conservation organisation which encourages travellers to upload their photos of whales spotted while cruising. Happywhale then use sophisticated image-processing technology to identify individual whales, and track their movements around the globe. On a similar note, AE Expedtiions work with eBird to carry out seabird surveys, where onboard ornithologists and naturalists will guide your efforts to spot birds at sea and count numbers ashore.

You can also take part in The Big Microplastic Survey, taking samples on shore visits following strict scientific protocols, which will then assist scientists in identifying exactly where these plastics have accumulated. Other citizen science activities include collecting cloud data for NASA, heading out in a Zodiac to map phytoplankton in the fjords of western Antarctica, monitoring leopard seal populations on the Antarctic Peninsula, and mapping sea ice conditions in the Arctic.

Cloud observation on a Hurtigruten expedition cruise

As well as contributing to scientific research, these programmes will give you a better understanding of the various issues impacting on the regions you're visiting. A more passive tourist in the polar regions might be struck by the 'pristine' appearance of the icy landscapes, but once you become a more active participant, for example by helping to comb remote beaches in the Arctic for plastic waste, you will come away with a greater appreciation for the ways in which our world is truly interconnected.

Crucially, your experiences will make you a genuine ambassador, returning home to champion the protection of our planet's most fragile ecosystems.

Meet the author

Tom is a Communications Manager at the Galapagos Conservation Trust and former Marketing Manager at Mundy Adventures

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