Biofoul: The Stowaway Turning Dream Cruises Into Trips to Nowhere

Images taken during a recent dive survey show high levels of biofouling — including tubeworms, barnacles and oysters — on a cruise ship that arrived in New Zealand.Credit…New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries

Floating on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer, billed as the “the most luxurious ship ever built,” voyagers wanted for nothing. The drinks flowed. Passengers dined on plates of buttered escargots, then walked them off in circles around each of the cruise liner’s decks. Some passed the time with trivia games or novels, or sat and pondered the view of endless blue ocean from the ship’s infinity pool.

Beyond these luxuries, all they could have possibly asked for, said Charles Hadlock, one of the 700 or so passengers aboard the ship, was to visit the New Zealand sites that many of them had traveled thousands of miles to see.

“Which, sadly, is not going to happen,” Mr. Hadlock, of Fort Worth, Texas, said in messages sent from the ship.

On Dec. 29, the Explorer departed Sydney for a 14-night, multistop voyage through Australia and New Zealand, with visits to Napier and Rotorua, two cities on New Zealand’s North Island, and Wellington, the capital, on the schedule, as well as days of cruising through the country’s fjords.

Instead, passengers spent two weeks floating at least 16 miles from any land in the ocean on a cruise to nowhere, after the ship was found to have biofoul — a catchall term for foreign organisms on its exterior — and failed to pass New Zealand’s exacting biosecurity laws.

The ship, along with Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, the Viking Orion and the Coral Princess, is one of at least six cruise liners traveling in and around New Zealand since December to come into conflict with these regulations, condemning those aboard to days of idleness at sea until a painstaking cleaning process, performed by local companies in international waters, can be completed.

For passengers, some of whom had spent tens of thousands of dollars and awaited the cruise for years, it was a crushing and unanticipated blow. For those in the industry in Australia and New Zealand, though, the incidents were all too foreseeable, even if the cause of a spate of them occurring in such a short time frame remained mysterious.

“A lot of people are going to look at it at face value and say the cruise ships were negligent,” said Ashley Coutts, a marine invasion biologist and the chief scientist at the company Biofouling Solutions, based in Tasmania, the Australian island state. “But there’s a lot more to it,” he said.

Few countries take as many biosecurity precautions as New Zealand, which goes to great lengths to protect its natural ecosystems. Passengers who arrive by air, for example, are met at the airport by a phalanx of signs that urge them to dispense with any meat or vegetable products or face the consequences. Even a single undeclared apple, tucked into hand luggage and forgotten about, may carry an instant fine of 400 New Zealand dollars, or about $250. (A recent bill introduced in the country’s parliament seeks to increase that fine almost threefold.)

New Zealanders largely support these efforts. Before the arrival of humans around 750 years ago, the archipelago had developed a unique ecosystem that soon proved vulnerable to the effects of over-hunting and the introduction of non-native species like rats and weasels. Today, certain birds native to New Zealand can be found only on sanctuary islands, far from the threat of introduced pests. Others are long extinct. Strict regulations protect what is left.

But fighting off invasions at sea has required a different tack.

Marine organisms — including mussels, oysters, algae, crabs and starfish, among a wider maritime cast — might hitch a ride either in the ballast water of ships, which helps the vessel’s stability, or by clinging to their exteriors, where they are known as biofoul. A global agreement, set by the regulatory authority known as the International Maritime Organization, dictates how ships handle organisms found in ballast water. But no such agreement exists for biofoul, allowing countries to set their own policy.

The Seven Seas Explorer, seen here docked in Istanbul in August, was forced to float at least 16 miles from land after the ship failed to pass New Zealand’s exacting biosecurity laws.Credit…Shutterstock

New Zealand’s standards, introduced in 2018, were the first of their kind in the world and are the most stringent. They stipulate that vessels must have a “clean hull,” with at most a coating of slime, stray gooseneck barnacles and a smattering of other organisms on their exterior. Once an initial clean is completed, usually in South East Asia, and the accompanying paperwork has been filed, the ship has 30 days to make its way to New Zealand.

Troubles arise if the authorities in New Zealand later conclude that the ship has not been sufficiently scoured, or if more biofoul accumulates on the ship as it wends its way to the country.

“It’s not something where, just because you clean it off, it suddenly stops. Marine growth continues to grow, especially at this time of the year. In warmer waters, things grow very quickly,” said Dr. Coutts, the marine biologist. “The poor cruise ship industry is really struggling — they’re doing everything they can.” Insufficient information about in-water cleaning policies and a lack of suitable equipment in the region further complicated compliance, Dr. Coutts added.

In a statement, Paul Hallett, a spokesman for Biosecurity New Zealand, said that the government agency had seen improved management of vessel hulls since the requirements were introduced.

“Ships have just started operating again post-pandemic and it would be too early to say whether there is an increase or a decrease,” he said, adding that occasional issues with cruise ships and biofoul occurred before the pandemic.

Between January 2020 and September 2022, 6 percent of international vessels entering New Zealand were asked to address biofouling issues, Mr. Hallett said.

For the passengers of the Viking Orion, watching a dive team at work cleaning the ship’s hull was a particular highlight, especially after days spent sitting at sea, and with the Australian mainland in sight. “It was the best entertainment of the cruise, at that point,” said Christine Goff, a passenger from Denver, Colo, in a phone interview.

Over eight days, passengers aboard the Viking Orion were haunted by the ghosts of the trip they had been promised. Scheduled lectures, which went on as planned, delivered tantalizing introductions to the destinations they might never go to. Screens around the ship showed weather forecasts for the cities they would not visit. (The forecasts could not be taken down, ship officials said, because they were controlled by technicians in California who were on vacation.)

Cracks began to show. Passengers noticed fewer crew members, and were told that some had been waylaid by the coronavirus. At breakfast, passengers said that oatmeal had become watered down, and eggs and fresh fruit vanished from the buffet. Rumors abounded that the ship had run out of rum, whiskey and vodka, panicking those who did not want beer, wine or any other substitutes.

“It seems crazy to complain about it, because you could get steak and shrimp whatever you wanted,” said Ms. Goff. “But it was obvious that they were starting to be cautious.”

Ms. Goff and her husband resolved to make the most of their time on the ship, spending quality time together that, at home, might be eaten up by work and other commitments. “We’d have dinner, sit by the pool, go to the entertainment show in the evening,” she said. “We came home well-rested — there wasn’t much to do but rest.”

But not every passenger was able to weather the delay so gracefully.

One woman, who had hoped to spend the long-planned trip seeing the animals of Australia and New Zealand as a last hurrah with her aging father, was constantly teetering on the precipice of tears. Another passenger, Ms. Goff recalled, publicly declined the offer of a compensatory voucher for a future cruise, saying that he had chosen to take the trip after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that he did not expect to live long enough to take any other cruises.

“If it was true, it was heartbreaking,” Ms. Goff said.

Different cruise companies have taken varying approaches toward compensating passengers waylaid by biofouling incidents. Regent has promised passengers a refund, said Mr. Hadlock, whereas Viking offered only a single-use cruise voucher, equivalent to the money paid for the ticket, that expires after one year.

In a statement after the voyage, a spokesman for Viking said that “a limited amount of standard marine growth” had now been successfully cleaned off the ship. Those who had missed ports had been provided with a voucher valued at 100 percent of what passengers had paid to Viking, which could be used for “any future voyage,” he said. Passengers who had attempted to seek cash refunds said they had been unsuccessful.

A spokeswoman for Regent acknowledged in a statement the “inconvenience, frustration, and disappointment” the disruption had caused passengers.

In situations like these, where ports are missed because of bad weather, mechanical difficulties or emergencies like a person falling overboard, passengers have very little legal recourse. “You have to look at the cruise ticket to determine what rights any passenger has,” said Jim Walker, a Miami-based lawyer who specializes in cruise ships. “And there aren’t any. It only really contains limitations and exclusions that benefit the cruise lines.”

For passengers who had traveled thousands of miles and saved for the trip of a lifetime, those vouchers are a difficult reminder of what might have been. Others have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths, and with questions to which they have found few answers.

Mr. Hadlock, who had been aboard the Explorer, phrased it plainly. “Passengers would still like to know how this happened,” he said. “How was a major cruise line caught so off-guard by regulations?”

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