Early one October morning, hours before the sun and most of California had risen, a small boat with a few bundled, coffee-sipping souls onboard skipped across invisible swells into the blank horizon. Above in the pitch-black sky, the stars shone so brightly that they didn’t twinkle, proving a brilliant contrast to the earthly streetlights of Santa Barbara, which glowed a muted yellow. But the most magical illumination suddenly came into view a few miles away on the surface of the sea, at first looking like a castle made of diamonds, but eventually emerging as the floating skyscraper that it was.
The Sapphire Princess, one of the many cruise ships that now visit Santa Barbara every year, was the early-morning target for the crew of the R/V Channelkeeper, the research vessel owned and operated by Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a clean-water advocacy organization. The goal was to remind the Sapphire’s bridge that they’d breached the City of Santa Barbara’s 12-mile boundary and entered the zone where all cruise ship captains promise to not dump any waste. The city’s Waterfront Department set new precedent by demanding that cruise-ship captains sign that agreement — which is much stricter than the three-mile no-dumping zone demanded by state law — but the only group making sure that the ships adhere to the contract so far has been Channelkeeper, which quietly started testing the wake of the ships a few years back, recently added a thermal camera to its expanding toolkit, and is now focused on making its presence even more known.
“Sapphire Princess, Sapphire Princess, Sapphire Princess. This is R/V Channelkeeper,” beckoned Ben Pitterle, marine program director, into the radio. “We’d like to welcome you to the Santa Barbara Channel, and politely remind you that you have entered the voluntary no-discharge zone.”
“Yes, we are 100 percent aware,” replied the Sapphire’s captain immediately and pleasantly. “All of our discharges are closed and our incinerators are off.”
Jenna Driscoll checks for evidence of unwanted dumping in the early-morning hours.
As the ship — a temporary vacation home for more than 2,600 people and 1,100 crew members, along with the 160,000 or so gallons of sewage generated each day — began picking up speed toward the coastline, the R/V Channelkeeper crew followed closely behind, stopping sporadically to dip empty vials into the ship’s wake and collect seawater that would be analyzed for any evidence of dumping. No one actually expects the Sapphire or other ships to violate the agreement — the consequences of being banned from Santa Barbara and enduring the ensuing marketing nightmare would be severe — and Pitterle readily admits that finding such a violation is close to impossible. “Track a cruise ship’s discharge in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean?” asked Pitterle, as his colleagues Penny Owens and Jenna Driscoll worked on getting more samples. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
That’s why now, as cruise ships’ presence skyrocketed to 22 visits in 2013 with nearly 30 already planned for 2014, Channelkeeper is shifting to become a visible and vocal watchdog of these floating cities, all the while balancing the overwhelming sentiment that the ships are a perfectly timed blessing for all types of commerce throughout downtown Santa Barbara and beyond. “The point is not to drive away cruise ships or the business that comes from them,” said Pitterle. “It’s more so that they know people do care about the ocean here and that we’re watching them.”
As such, Channelkeeper finds itself on the front lines of what’s quickly become one of Santa Barbara’s most talked-about developments in recent years. Right now, with a rather stunning degree of unanimity for a region rarely tepid about civic debates, the increased presence of cruise ships is getting a nearly universal thumbs-up. The enhanced tourism is good for business, in part because the Waterfront Department has handled its scheduling so strategically, restricting visits to the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall and on otherwise slower weekdays. And even though cruise-ship visitors don’t stay in hotels, often don’t eat in town (because meals tend to be free onboard), and spend less than the average tourist, the region’s tourism boosters are gushing with excitement at the exposure Santa Barbara is getting, with high hopes that these day-trippers will come back for overnight trips in the future.
And yet even the most pro-business resident can’t help but wonder what impacts these floating cities might have on the ocean, the air, the traffic, and, perhaps one day, even the soul of Santa Barbara. Today, most seem comfortable with the frequency and function of cruise ships in our already tourist-friendly town. But in the years to come, if visits multiply as they have in recent years, will Santa Barbara ever grow weary of the massive ships dominating our shoreline?
By Paul Wellman
Rise of the Cruise
Santa Barbara’s first cruise ship arrived in 2002, thanks to rising violence in Mexico that prompted the industry to rethink its West Coast offerings. “Once they started visiting other ports, especially Santa Barbara, people started responding in such a positive way that this idea of a regional itinerary really stuck,” explained the Waterfront Department’s Mick Kronman, who has been involved with organizing the visits since the beginning.
So for the next eight years, the boats — which are usually on three- to seven-day tours with additional stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Ensenada — returned at the rate of about one or two per year. In 2011, in the wake of the 2009 swine-flu scare, seven cruise ships anchored here. In 2012, that number crept to 10, before more than doubling this year, with 22 visits, including the Golden Princess, the last ship of 2013, which came and left this past Tuesday. Next year, there are 29 visits tentatively scheduled, although that number was actually 34 before a few cancellations.
The steady rise is evidence of the cruise liners’ “fantastic” response to Santa Barbara, said Mike Hubbard of Quay Cruise Agencies, which books the West Coast for Princess Cruises. “It’s just a great place to go,” he said. “People seem to really enjoy it.”
Cruise liners plan itineraries far in advance, first coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Once it gets to the local level, Santa Barbara’s Waterfront Department is wholly in charge of evaluating, approving, and scheduling these visits, according to its director, Scott Riedman, though his staff does consult with the city administrator and relies on the help of Visit Santa Barbara (which promotes the destination), the Downtown Organization and Chamber of Commerce (which staff the hospitality desks), the Metropolitan Transit District (which handles transportation), SEA Landing (which handles the unloading and loading of tenders), and other city departments and businesses. “What differentiates Santa Barbara from so many other communities is that there is an incredible amount of collaboration,” said Kathy Janega-Dykes, head of Visit Santa Barbara. “It has really served us well.”
BIG BOATS AHOY: The presence of cruise ships in Santa Barbara more than doubled over the last year in 2013, with 22 visits, which Visit Santa Barbara’s Kathy Janega-Dykes believes is a much-needed boost for the economy. “Each brings thousands of passengers and prospective future customers to our harbor and downtown and surrounding areas for a day of touring and shopping and exploring,” she said.
The Waterfront Department receives $5 a head for all people on each ship (passengers and crew, regardless of whether they disembark or not), amounting to more than $500,000, according to records from 2004 to the present. About a third of that money is dispersed to the partnering organizations to cover their costs, and the rest goes into the Waterfront Department’s enterprise fund. “We use that as needed for operating expenses and capital expenditures,” said Riedman, explaining that the cruise-ship visits do not require any extra staffing or impacts to his department.
Of course, the benefits flow much deeper into town, as well, as anyone strolling State Street, the harbor, Stearns Wharf, or the Funk Zone can readily notice on visit days. “You can tell when there’s a cruise ship in town,” reports Mayor Helene Schneider, who appreciates the strategy of scheduling the visits mostly during weekdays in the spring and fall. “That’s a big deal for the local economy.”
That notion is supported by the preliminary results of a cruise-passenger survey that Visit Santa Barbara commissioned for 2013. Though final results won’t be released until the end of the year, of the first 454 respondents, most were first-time Santa Barbara visitors, more than 60 percent shopped while here, just under 50 percent ate at a restaurant, and more than three-quarters were “very satisfied” with their visit. On average, they spent $92 each. (See sidebar for more statistics.)
Visit Santa Barbara’s Janega-Dykes, whose outreach was integral in attracting cruise ships here, is enthused with these early results, especially by how many are first-timers. “It is Visit Santa Barbara’s goal to bring them back again for longer stays in our lodging facilities along the South Coast,” said Janega-Dykes, who also explained that there is immeasurable value in having Santa Barbara included in the itineraries that the cruise companies send to millions of customers around the world. But the results are already tangible for businesses like Santa Barbara Trolley and winery tour guides and anyone else involved in offering shore excursions. “It’s been an amazing opportunity for many of our local businesses to work with these cruise ship passengers and provide exposure for future visits by these passengers as well as their family and friends,” she explained.
Mayor Schneider credits the hospitality tents down on Cabrillo Boulevard with making those return visits even more likely. “They are doing great,” she said. “What they’re saying is, ‘You are here for a few hours, but we want you back for a few days.’”