Virgin Voyages’ Resilient Lady has created quite a stir over the last several months when it called on Hobart, Tasmania during its regular three-six day cruises from Melbourne and Sydney. The cruise ship has been extensively photographed belching out smoke which fills the port, sparking a heated debate whether the public is seeing just harmless steam, as the cruise line (and some government officials) want you to believe, or toxic smoke endangering the residents of the waterfront community.

The Resilient Lady Arrives in Port Smoking Heavily

Australia’s Mercury newspaper addressed the spectacle with a (paywell-protected) article entitled “Colossal Cruise Ship’s Smoke Plumes Cause Alarm,” stating:

“A gargantuan cruise liner that departed Hobart on Sunday has kicked off a debate over the potential air pollution caused by large ships, after the 278m vessel belched plumes of smoke across the Derwent River.”

Other Australian newspapers, such asthe Pulse Tasmania, published dramatic photographs depicting incredible plumes of smoke emanating from the Virgin Voyages’ cruise ship which repositioned to Australia last December. The Pulse article states that since its inaugural visit to Tasmania in 2023, the Resilient Lady has become a “regular topic in community groups on social media.” Thick smoke has filled the Hobart Waterfront every time the Virgin Voyages’ cruise ship docks in the city “causing concerns for locals.”

The Pulse contained questionable opinions of Wes Ford, the Director of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in Tasmania, who did not believe the ship was a “significant issue” and claimed that emissions from the ship are allegedly “within acceptable limits.”

The newspaper quoted Mr. Ford, who admitted that “he did not know the exact cause of the emissions,” suggesting that “much of the visible smoke was likely steam and exhaust gases.” But the fact is that the EPA in Australia, which previously operated a monitoring station in Hobart, decommissioned the compliance system and no longer tests ship emissions. So it appears that governmental official Ford has no basis to claim that the voluminous emissions, clearly shown in these photographs, are somehow within whatever limits may apply.

Who Ya Going to Believe Me Or Your Lying Eyes?

We regularly hear some people, usually hard core cruise fans or occasionally an engineer employed by a cruise line, argue that photographs showing cruise ship stacks billowing out smoke like this are mostly emitting just “harmless steam.” I am reminded of the famous quote from Groucho Marx from the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup who asked: “who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Decades later, comedian Richard Pryor used the expression when his wife caught him in bed with another woman: “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Some cruise fans and supposed experts are essentially asking the public, who are naturally aghast at cruise ships belching out incredible amounts of smoke, not to believe their own eyes. They may claim “its just steam” don’t worry. Or they falsely suggest that what the public is seeing it just due to the vapors which will will somehow magically disappear.

Whether It’s Smoke or Smoke and Steam, Cruise Ships Are Dumping Toxic Sludge

But the debate of whether it’s just steam versus toxic emissions misses the indisputable fact that what is shown is the result of the scrubber systems operating to try and remove the residue from burning heavy fuel oil (“HFO”) with a high sulfur content and non-combustible soot from the ship’s emissions. The residual pollutants which scrubbers try to remove from the air are called “scrubber sludge” or simply “sludge, which is a toxic mix of metals, such as lead, nickel and zinc, as well as hydrocarbons, sulfur, and nitrogen compounds. In the “open loop” systems commonly used by most cruise ships, the toxic and acidic sludge is then dumped back into the ocean. But the fact is that the soot and toxic by-products of burning bunker fuel don’t just magically disappear. Most ships temporarily accumulate the toxic sludge after when the scrubber washes the stacks with water and then dump the sludge into the water.

Yes, some ports prohibit this nasty practice but most cruise ships engage in dumping scrubber sludge into the water. The scrubbers essentially turn air pollution into water pollution. See, Smoke and Mirrors: Cruise Line Scrubbers Turn Air Pollution Into Water Pollution.

Mr. Ford essentially admits this while trying to convince the public that the smoke is not really a problem, but just a mistaken perception, saying “so we see an exhaust system on a large ship that has a complicated mechanism for taking some of the more nasties out of the exhaust system. That is then discharged into the marine environment 12 nautical miles off the coast.”

But the truth is, as we have seen, some cruise ships dump the “nasties” (Mr. Ford’s word) not far-out-at-sea but in ports (like Princess cruise ships did in Alaskan ports). And some cruise ships have experienced a malfunction of their scrubbers (like the Carnival Magic which discharged five tons of sludge in Grand Turk).

Star Princess Scrubber Sludge at Berth 4 in Ketchikan, Alaska (photo credit City of Ketchikan)

Sir Richard Branson Responds to the Embarrassing Spectacle and Orders Resilient Lady to No Longer Burn HFO in Nobart, But is This Just a Temporary Fix?

Virgin Voyages’ founder Sr. Richard Branson has tried to defuse the ugly debate by ordering the Resilient Lady to switch fuel and no longer burn NFO (at least in Hobart) which was the root cause of the pollution in the first place.

This is a quick fix and only a short term solution to a long term problem. How will the residents in other port communities like Melbourne or Sydney respond? Will they criticize the Virgin Voyages’ ship when it arrives and begins to stink up these ports? What will the residents do once the Resilient Lady switches back to HFO and residents begin to choke from ship pollution?

My thought is that Virgin will be satisfied to simply “kick the can down the road,” so to speak, and hope that the bad press dies down. Like other cruise lines, Virgin is not going to switch from lower cost HFO simply to silence its critics.

If you are concerned with the trend of cruise ships to continue to burn HFO and dump toxic scrubber sludge at sea, please contact us. We are interested in seeing additional photos showing the emissions from this cruise ship and other ships in Virgin’s fleet. We remain, of course, interested in the conduct of the regular polluters, Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

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Image credit: Virgin Voyages’ Resilient Lady – Pulse Tasmania; scrubber sludge from Star Princess in Ketchikan, Alaska – City of Ketchikan via  KRBD Community Radio;