The spectacle Thursday morning of the 90,000+ ton, 950+ feet long, 15-story Norwegian Dawn cruise ship plowing through the shallow waters of the Florida Marine Sanctuary with its 28 foot draft churning up the sandy silt bottom and docking in Key West was an ugly sight.

Over a year ago, voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of referendums to drastically reduce the presence of giant cruise ships in Key West, by reasonably limiting the size of ships and the number of passengers who can visit the city daily. Large cruise ships cause substantial “water turbidity.” Huge, deep hulled cruise ships tear up the ocean floor in the shallow waters around Key West and create huge silt plumes. It’s not only bad for fishing but it is also deadly to the ecosystem. Huge cruise ships cover the reefs with silt caused by the churning of the sea beds by their monstrous sizes and deep drafts. The degrading of the water quality violates federal water standards. The harsh reality is that the compromised reefs struggle under the acculation of the disrupted silt, and eventually die.

This is not the first large cruise ship which churned up the seabed en route to the small shallow water port of Key West. Many thousands of ships have sailed during cruises en route to or from Miami over the years. One of the few positive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, fortunately, the destruction stopped as the industry was forced to stop sailing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) entered no sailing orders starting in March of last year. But with the lifting of the orders, the cruise industry is poised to begin docking in Key West again. Last October, the Serenade of the Seas, created what the non-profit group Safer, Cleaner Ship (@ProtectKeyWest on Twitter) called a “massive turbidity” disturbance when the Royal Caribbean cruise ship entered the port to disembark a passenger who needed emergency medical treatment.

Another cruise ship, operated by Crystal Cruises, created a similar huge several-mile-long plume of silt as it visted Key West earlier this month (watch video to the end to see the dolphins fleeing the silt plume!)

The referendums, which were intended to stop this environmental destruction shown in the videos, were adopted by more than 60% of voters in Key West over a year ago. The city successfully banned cruise ships with more than 1,300 passengers from docking and limited the total number of cruise guests who can disembark the ships each day to 1,500. A third referrendum which prioritizes cruise ships with the best environmental and health records passed by over 80%.

But later this past summer, Governor DeSantis, with the involvement of Republican legislators, canceled the will of the local Key West voters. The govenor signed into law a contentious transportation bill (SB 1194) which effectively overturned the local popular referendums.

Behind the scene, cruise lines conspired, according to the Miami Herald, to launch a dirty, disinformation campaign, funded  by a “dark money” scheme that included contributions from the cruise industry, which publicly stayed out of the campaign to overturn the referendums and the will of Key West voters. Involved in the anti-democratic scenanigans was also a business developer who operates the Key West pier (Pier B Development) and donated nearly $1 million ($995,000) to the political committee of Florida Governor DeSantis.

In a series of articles, the Miami Herald reported that businessman Mark Walsh, who leases the state-owned terminal on Key West Harbor in front of the Opal Key Resort and Marina,  helped finance the opposition to the three referendums approved by Key West voters by wide margins.

With the cruise industry successfully overturning the will of most Key West voters, cruise lines were legally permitted to continue to try and jam their over-sized ships into the tiny port in Key West. Most cruise lines, however, respected the voters in Key West and decided to avoid the public relations spectacle of forcing their cruise ships on Key West. Carnival Corporation, Virgin Cruises and Disney Cruise Line, among a few others, dropped Key West from their itineraries. But Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), like Crystal Cruises two weeks earlier, decided that it was not to be bothered with Key West’s environmental concerns.

Thursday morning, I drove down to Key West to see the Norwegian Dawn arrive a Pier B and to watch and film the protest organized by the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships / @ProtectKeyWest. You can watch the Facebook live video, which I later posted to YouTube, at the bottom of this post. I also took a few photos of the demonstration which included around 300 local people. 

Most of the images and video posted here are courtesy of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships. 

The protest was well attended by the citizens of Key West as the photographs and videos demonstrate. There was also a large marine component of around forty-five commercial fishing boats and private watercraft which greeted the NCL ship. There were also members of the press covering the event.

Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships President Evan Haskell and his brother Arlo Haskell (treasurer) both spoke at the ralley. In the video below, you can hear Evan tell the crowd “I want to remind everybody that we’re not here to demonstrate against the passengers of the vessel, if you’re going on a cruise right now . . . they bought their ticket they want to have a nice vacation here, we should let them do that we’re here to protest the ship and what that turbidity is doing out there . . . ”

Safer, Cleaner Ships is a grassroots movement of everyday citizens in the Florida Keys. Its organizing committee is led by Evan Haskell (President), Jolly Benson (Vice President), Arlo Haskell (Treasurer), David Dunn (Secretary), and Will Benson (member at large). The Haskells and the Bensons are brothers who were born and raised in the lower Keys and are raising their families in the Keys.

You can read about the negative environmental impact of large cruise ships in the Florida Keys on the Safer, Cleaner Ships’ webite. The website also explains the beneficial economic effects of keeping over-sized cruise ships away from Key West, as follows:


  • Total hotel bed taxes for September–December 2020 exceed the same period for 2019 throughout the Florida Keys.

  • For all of 2020, Florida Keys and Key West have the highest hotel occupancy rates and room rates in the state.

  • For March 2021, Key West has the highest hotel occupancy rate in the US.


  • Total sales tax revenue for September–November 2020 exceed the same period for 2019 throughout the Florida Keys.

  • Total sales tax and parking revenues for September–December 2020 exceed the same period for 2019 in the City of Key West.


  • As of December 2020, the unemployment rate in the Florida Keys (Monroe County) is 2.6% — tied for the lowest UE rate in Florida and among the lowest in the U.S.


  • For June–December 2020, many businesses at the Historic Key West Bight, part of the Port of Key West, had monthly sales higher than 2019, including bars and restaurants and watersports and dive companies.

The reality is that cruise tourists don’t stay overnight in hotels in Key West or dine in nice restaurants in the little city but typically scurry back to the over-sized cruise ships after buying a couple of t-shirts and cheap trinkets. Income to the city of Key West has increased since cruise ships stopped coming to Key West last year. Overnight visitors who arrive by auto contribute substantially more to the city than the cruise tourists who get off the huge ships for only a few hours only to hurry back to the ships to feed on the ship buffets and to get their fill of their all-you-can-drink booze packages. The bottom line is that, from a financial perspective, the city of Key West does not need large cruise ships. The truth is that large cruise ships cause significant harm to the water and marine life in the Keys.

It should be noted that the Safer, Cleaner Ships’website lists over 35 smaller cruise ships which all qualify with the size limits enacted by Key West voters.

Take a moment and watch the plume of muddy silt that a cruise ship creates in the video below. A video of a portion of the protest is at the bottom.

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Photo and video credits: Norwegian Dawn in Key West – top – Jim Walker; all other images credit to respective Twitter users.