Cruise Ships Returning to Santa Barbara in Record Numbers Following Pandemic Pause

Critics Contend Environmental Impacts of Visiting Ships Outweigh Economic Benefits

The 'Scenic Eclipse' anchored a mile off Santa Barbara on September 27, 2022, one of 30 cruise ships to visit the city this year. | Credit: Elliot Gillies

The Scenic Eclipse anchored a mile off Santa Barbara Harbor around noon on Tuesday, one of 30 cruise ships to make port at the city this year. Billed as a “discovery yacht” by owner Scenic of Australia, the 10-deck ship is on a 10-day cruise from Vancouver to San Diego that costs a passenger more than $4,000. Though the city reaps $10 per passenger, about a dozen swimmers, fishers, and scientists appeared at a new Harbor subcommittee last Thursday to make a case that the environmental costs exceed that amount.

Santa Barbara began a program to bring cruise ships and their revenue to the area in 2002, and since then, roughly 200 have dropped anchor, said Mike Wiltshire, the city’s waterfront director. Over time, the program grew from a handful of ships annually to numbering in the high twenties in 2014-2016; the program stopped in 2020 and 2021 when outbreaks of COVID-19 spread rapidly on cruise ships globally. This year’s total of 30 visiting ships is an all-time high. The program earns about $400,000 per year for the Waterfront Department, Wiltshire said, and a study by Visit Santa Barbara found that the economic benefit to the city closed in on $4 million in 2016 from retail and restaurant spending, and from entertainment and excursions.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper often monitors the discharge coming from the cruise ships and has done so since 2013. Ben Pitterle, who leads the nonprofit’s water quality monitoring program, stated that they’ve seen that the ships observe the city’s request that no discharge occur within 12 miles of the coast. The Santa Barbara Channel, however, is about 24 miles across, and the ships purge their bilge and wastewater tanks once outside the 12-mile zone.

“Channelkeeper is sensitive to the fact that we have one ocean, one atmosphere. I don’t know that Santa Barbara officials are aware of the kinds of impacts that cruise ships have,” Pitterle said.

This year’s total of 30 visiting ships is an all-time high for Santa Barbara. | Credit:

Cruise ships are in essence floating cities; the largest to visit Santa Barbara will have as many as 3,500 passengers and more than 1,000 crewmembers. In the case of the Scenic Eclipse, 170 passengers are tended to by 185 crew members. In addition to water quality issues is the quantity of air pollution the ships emit from their stacks, not only while en route to and from a destination, but also to power the electricity for all the plug-in equipment serving crew and passengers, such as computers and air conditioning.

The county Air Pollution Control District is in the preliminary stages of quantifying cruise ship emissions, finalizing a method to compare the number of visitors if they came by ship or if they were to come by gas-powered vehicle. The draft report indicates that a large ship with a 10,191-kilowatt engine load at anchorage emits approximately twice the quantity of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) and about 150 times the nitrogen and sulfur oxides than the equivalent number of car trips back and forth to Los Angeles. Cruise ships make up about 1.5-2 percent of the county’s total nitrogen oxides emission inventory.

Heidi DeBra monitors the ocean surface almost daily because she’s been swimming off Leadbetter Beach for more than 40 years. She’s one of about 100 swimmers who stroke through Santa Barbara waters regularly for exercise. Over the years, DeBra had come to notice that scum in the water often showed up about a day to a day and a half after the ships departed. “It’s a bubbly slick,” she said, “oily, with whitish stuff, but it doesn’t smell of sewage.” Seagrass often was mixed in, she said, which could be from the bottom getting churned up when the anchors were pulled up.

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DeBra’s undergraduate degree is in marine biology, and she works now as a tutor in math and the sciences, including environmental science. She considered the cruise ships a blight and told the subcommittee commissioners that she’d prefer that the number of ships be kept smaller. “It feels like they’re here a lot, and in terms of aesthetics, they’re a blight on the landscape.”

One of the cruise-ship stories that have circulated among fishers is one about the ship that anchored on top of the reef that’s about a mile offshore. Harbor Commissioner Merit McCrea, who is a biologist at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, had heard about the incident and told the Independent that the reef is in 60-70 feet of water, rising up to about 54 feet.

Jason Diamond thought he actually saw it occur. He and his wife, Jaime Diamond, operate Stardust Sportfishing at what is now called Santa Barbara Landing (Sea Landing went out of business after the Conception tragedy). Jaime said that a few years ago, her husband had seen a cruise ship anchored about where he knew the reef to be, as it is a popular fishing spot. He later motored over it with his fish sonar and saw the reef had been badly damaged from the tug and pull of the anchor. “The cruise ships typically anchor a mile offshore,” Jaime said, “but not at that spot anymore.”

Ben Pitterle with Channelkeeper said new at-berth regulations would be coming soon that required cruise ships to connect to electricity providers to keep the boilers and diesel generators to a minimum when at dock. The exceptions were Catalina, Monterey, and Santa Barbara because no such dock extensions exist. He thought the city could be more selective on who it allowed to anchor offshore. “Some shipmakers have made progress with technological improvements,” he noted. “Maybe Santa Barbara could become a leader and drive the industry toward greater progress by choosing more carefully.”

And Pitterle wondered how the city’s climate efforts conformed with its cruise ship policy. “My key question is, how is Santa Barbara going to get to carbon-neutral by 2035 when they have cruise ships every year that emit a lot of greenhouse-gas emissions? A ship anchored for eight hours can produce 80 tonnes of CO2,” he said. “We have a community that is devoted to doing its part to curb emissions. This seems to be one issue that deserves examination on a holistic level and not just within arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries.”

Thursday’s was only the second meeting for this cruise ship subcommittee, and Pitterle said they had yet to learn how the three members would incorporate public comment. He hoped they would turn into recommendations to the City Council. Subcommittee chair Michael Hanrahan indicated the group met quarterly and the next meeting would be held in late October or early November.

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