Noble Caledonia passengers clean up ocean plastic in Svalbard

Cruise passengers were confronted with a stark reminder of Man's impact on the natural world when they visited a beach in NE Spitsbergen, Svalbard

svalbard cleanup noble caledonia 1

Above: Passengers at work on a beach in Faksevagen in Lomfjord, NE Spitsbergen [photo: Pierre Malan].

Passengers onboard Noble Caledonia’s cruise vessel 'Hebridean Sky' made a trip ashore while in Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, where they conducted a clean-up of plastic and fishing gear found on beach. The waste was brought back to the ship for disposal at the next port.

Pam Le Noury, Noble Caledonia’s head of expedition field operations, led the group in their clean-up mission and says there’s much more that ships and shore staff can be doing to safeguard wilderness areas.

“The worst beaches are usually where there are no people doing any clean-ups (uninhabited) and where the currents are bringing oceanic garbage ashore – Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles,” says Pam.

“Depending on the currents you can find uninhabited beaches ‘pristine’ or uninhabited beaches absolutely coated in garbage. Those beaches, while unsightly, are a great opportunity to get the garbage out of the ocean system.”

Noble Caledonia says it invites its passengers to participate in beach clean-ups wherever its vessels are in the world. Many such excursions happen spontaneously.

“Many of our guests and staff are in the (lovely) habit of picking up plastic trash from wilderness areas, so there are always a few handfuls, but when we happen upon a place where there is a huge quantity then we end up gathering a big pile at our landing. Sometimes it is logistically difficult to manage this garbage; we have to store it on board for weeks until we get to a port and then it costs money to offload garbage in port, so that is a factor,” Pam says of passengers’ clean-up work.

Fishing gear is the type of rubbish most commonly found on beaches in Svalbard, in Pam’s experience. This can of course endanger the local fauna by entangling them, especially as more and more seabirds are picking up plastic and nylon nets for nesting material, she says. 

An unseen threat posed by ocean plastic is its ingestion by animals – and ultimately humans. “This is especially true for creatures that naturally eat jellyfish and for seabirds that pick up little fragments at the surface to feed their chicks,” Pam explains. “The end game is micro-plastics being ingested by all manner of organisms and working up the food chain, bio-accumulating until they are quite harmful to top predators – ourselves included, although that’s not something we can directly see.”

svalbard cleanup noble caledonia 2Passengers and the haul of discarded fishing gear they cleared from the beach. 

Ocean plastic, of course, originates from land and this is where the problem must be tackled. 

“Our entire commercial system needs to change from a linear system (that starts with natural resources and ends with garbage; we are running out of the former and over accumulating the latter) into a circular system where we recycle and reuse everything. It’s a complete shift in the way we have designed ‘everything’ and, although it sounds overwhelming, you may be surprised or inspired to know how much progress is being made globally to push towards a more sustainable existence,” Pam explains.

“An energy shift from fossil fuels towards renewables is slowly happening, and a commercial shift from single use items or items that are designed to fail within two to three years towards items that last longer and can be recycled – also underway.” 

Climate change caused by the longstanding burning of fossil fuels is warming Arctic waters, causing glaciers to recede and sea ice to diminish – threatening the habitats of creatures like polar bears, seals and narwhals, Pam says.

Shipping is doing its best to minimise its impact on the environment, with a raft of new environmental regulations due to come into effect shortly. In the Arctic, most passenger vessels subscribe to a stringent set of guidelines through membership of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, of which Noble Caledonia is a member. The guidelines are designed to make both tour operators and visitors aware of the environmental impact of their time in the Arctic and minimise its negative effects.

But reducing Man’s impact on the natural world requires the engagement of everybody – whether at sea or ashore. 

“Quite simply we cannot continue down the path that we have for the last few decades, all the science agrees, and you should be inspired to know that all the solutions are at hand, the will is growing and I very much believe we, as humans, are turning onto a more sustainable pathway. The COP 21 agreement in Paris took the issue onto the national agenda of almost every nation and so the stage is set,” says Pam.

“We can reduce our own personal footprints in small actions every day (reduce reuse recycle), effectively ‘live more simply’. And if you can do it in your own life, you can inspire your office, you can inspire your community, your town and so on.”

svalbard cleanup noble caledonia 3Pam le Noury (pictured next to the RIB), passengers and the 'Hebridean Sky' in the background.