David and Goliath: Cruise Ships in Kralendijk

Cruise Ship in Kralendijk. Credit and thank you to photographer Steve at I Am Render on Flickr

Could there be an image more iconic than a big ship docked on a small island? As the world remembers the Titanic, and as images of the sinking of Carnival Cruise’s Costa Concordia fade  …

…a friend and I found ourselves sitting on a sea wall in Kralendijk on the Island of Bonaire, watching a cruise ship dock.

From my friend's IPhone
The Bonaireans on land and the tourists from the boat carried out an almost balletic drill. Vendors erected canopies and set up booths offering chachkies like sunglasses, tee shirts and overripe fruit. Our hotel owners warned us not to shop in town on cruise ship days because passengers like to dicker, and shopkeepers reportedly respond by flipping sales tags to higher, negotiable prices.  Taxis and shuttle buses lined up on the waterfront and the street closed to other traffic.
On the day we were there, a multi-ethnic group of school children stood on shore chanting a welcome, laughing, singing and waving.  Many restaurants stayed closed, we guessed because the legendary cruise ship buffets probably kept passengers fed pretty well.

Visitors disembarked and scattered, many to the buses and taxis to be driven around to beaches, boat tours or to scuba dive.  Some just rode around to see what’s what.

Later in the day everybody got back on the boat and just before sunset the ship sounded a long, mournful toot and sailed away. The tents came down, restaurants opened, all was quiet and low-key and everybody was happy.

Kralendijk at night. Source: Definitive Caribbean Guide

Or were they? Just below these sunny doings, the ecosystem is being rerouted.

The island is about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, 26 miles from tip to tip and about as wide as an airplane strip.  Unlike it’s popular neighbors Aruba and Curacao, until recently Bonaire was considered mostly good for salt production.

Image Source: The Lodge Bonaire

Scuba divers knew better, quietly cherishing the reefs, teeming with tropical sea life, the 100 foot water clarity and easy accessibility from the shore.

Image source: guideoftravels.com 

Divers are a mellow, crusty crowd, not very needy in the tourist department, happy with small inns and boats, bars and good food, so development on the island has been slow. 
Image source: Conde Nast Traveler
That’s changing, for all the reasons that tourism grows anywhere:  poverty on the island (people needing money); potential for profits (people wanting money), and tourists (people with money to spend).  
Every large influx of people brings its load of waste (we arrived by plane.  See Is Flying Worth It? ).  In one week a typical cruise ship carrying 3000 passengers generates:
  • 1 million gallons of “gray water” from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys
  • 210,000 gallons of “black water” or sewage from toilets
  • 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water
  • 100 gallons of hazardous wastes (including perchloroethylene from drycleaning, photo-processing wastes, paint waste, solvents, print shop wastes, fluorescent light bulbs, and batteries)
  • 50 tons of solid wastes (plastic, paper, wood, cardboard, food waste, cans, and glass)
  • Air pollution from the ship’s diesel engines equivalent to thousands of cars

For many years cruise ships paid to have raw sewage dumped inland on Bonaire, but as evidence mounted that sewage was seeping into the ocean, destroying coral reef and polluting the water (see Sponge Blog), the Dutch and Bonairean governments (Bonaire is a Dutch municipality) funded an improved sewage disposal system, which went online in 2011.

Is it enough?  Probably not, but more data needs to be collected.  Volunteers are monitoring seawater around the island, and its companion, the uninhabited island Klein Bonaire.  Funding is tight.  

So much at stake.  Not only does Bonaire have one of the healthiest marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, it is also one of four places in the world where flamingos nest …

From Sailblogs, 2006 s/v Purrfection sailing trip

… and may be the last best hope for the Yellow Shouldered Amazon Parrot (see “Parrots of the Caribbean” http://mag.audubon.org/articles/travel/parrots-caribbean)…

Photographer: Kandace the Nomad Photographer

… and uncountable unique and fragile ecosystems (see WorldKid’s Blog, on orchids).  As Bonaire is discovered by more people, construction is proceeding apace, and tensions mount between those who want to preserve Bonaire’s natural bounty, and those anxious to capitalize on Bonaire’s natural bounty.

Must we bend every wild and beautiful place to suit the tastes of people like me, who want the upsides, warm weather, beautiful beaches and natural surroundings, without having to deal with inconveniences?

It’s one thing to make ourselves safe and comfortable, to have the opportunity to explore new places and to relax.  It’s another to  acquiesce to the idea that in order to explore and relax, we must also subscribe to the idea that the highest good and best way to judge any enterprise is whether it makes a profit.

I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this island, and sad that it seems unlikely we’ll be able to save the way it is for future generations.

Maybe this is how it is supposed to be.  Maybe we are here on the earth to change it, to gobble it up a like a yolk sac, but the trouble is, we don’t really know.  We are plowing ahead, hoping for the best.  Talk about faith in ourselves.  I am not a scientist or a Bonairean, not a professional or a politician.  All I can do is witness, and wonder, so I will.

Image source: Best Cruise Deals 2009

For a list of environmental projects on Bonaire, and how to donate to them see Support Bonaire


  • Wow, Julie. Thank you so much for turning what I assume was a vacation into an opportunity to support the people you encountered, and to educate the rest of us. And that phrase “gobble it up like yolk sac”–I don’t think I’ll be able to forget that. In the face of such imminent disaster, you remind me that individuals CAN do something, and that “witness” is a more powerful tool than we think.


  • It’s hard not to react to radical ecological change with panic and anger. We do what we do. Still, we must face up to what we do, even if we’re not willing or able to change. That is the human condition. Thanks for the comment.


  • I also really liked the yolk-sac analogy. I will remember that. I have kind of avoided reading statistics on cruise ships, because I knew I’d be horrified by them — and I read yours here, and I was horrified. When we lived in New Zealand, there were a few cruise ships that would dock in Dunedin sometimes, and they were overwhelmingly huge — just obscenely huge, like a scary sci-fi movie. Iconic of global overpopulation. Anyway, it needed to be said, and how eloquently you said it.


    • The ships were Disney-esque. We aren’t going back to no cruise ship days if we can help it, but we have to do what we can to minimize damage.


  • As a resident I welcome small boutique lines as the numbers are manageable and the clientel typically in sync with eco practices. The mega ships cater to the masses. Most folks arrive in Bonaire and have no clue what to do or what the island is all about. I lived on the main street for several years and tourists would wander around lost asking, “what’s there to do, where are we actually”…..now, everyone has a taxi license to shuttle around the thousands that come each week and few of these folks are properly trained to educate about the island…the entire vision was not well thought out in any regard.


  • The vision was not thought out, unless making a few bucks is the highest priority. The saddest thing was reading some of the travel blogs of cruisers who wrote Bonaire off with a word or two like “dusty” or “rainy” or “boring.”

    Good for Bonaire citizens though who are putting up a fight, monitoring water quality, defending public land and native species. Also, many thanks to locals who were universally helpful, open, friendly to (yet another) tourist like me.

    Read somewhere that another cruise ship facility is under construction. Is that true? Where is it?


    • A “cruise ship shopping mall” is under construction near the cruise ship docking area at the site of the current shipping dock. This will require a new shipping dock and its location is currently under debate. Suggested locations include some of the few sandy beaches open to citizens.

      Go to: http://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/00/09/40/93/00278/02-17-2012.pdf

      From the link, see the story at the beginning of page 2, “Donkey Beach.”


  • The yolk sac analogy, while appealing, may not have to apply to Bonaire. The purpose of a yolk sacs is to launch a fledgling life. They provide a food for an embryo not capable yet of living independently. Humans have surely demonstrated the ability to live independently just about anywhere, to adapt nature to their will. The much more difficult endeavor is to adapt yourself to nature in a protected respite, a place where there may not be much to do, a place left as it was a reminder of the beauty and serenity of the past. Bonaire has been such a place. Will it be a place of nature and solitude in the future?

    It will be much more difficult to protect Bonaire than to develop it. The will to protect it will have to come from those who know and love it.


    • I agree on all points. We act as if we’re starving, as if we must contort every place we love to suit the lowest common denominator in creature comforts — but there is no law that it has to be this way. We’re certainly capable of holding back, disciplining ourselves to respect places just the way they evolved, without our help. And yes, this is much more difficult than selling and bulldozing. I like Sean Paton’s motto on B.I.C.E.P.s: You never lose until you stop trying.


  • Julia, you are mistaken; there is no sewage system “on-line” on Bonaire. Yes, they are digging up the island to put in sewage pipes (which is another big environmental fiasco) but nothing is connected or operative. In addition, the Freewinds (scientology ship) still dumps its sewage on Bonaire even though it is illegal to do so. Obviously someone in the government is getting paid under the table.

    More blogs like yours are needed to get the word out that Bonaire’s “ecotourist image” is a bunch of hooey, especially in the last 10 years when one environmental travesty after another is committed, from open sewage trenches to a heavy metal-laden landfill to centuries-old rocks scraped away and pummeled into sand and gravel for even more construction. It is sad, sad, sad, but the greed of a few politicians and businessmen is driving Bonaire into the ground.


  • No new system? Man, that’s a heartbreak.

    Even to a tourist like me, only there for a week, the eco-tourism image looked pretty thin. Lots of construction, much of it abandoned and ugly, lots of topsoil scraped away, many of the most beautiful parts of the coast line private and blocked off. It’s hard to stand in the way of profit.

    Still Bonaire has a lot going for it: great blocks of land set aside and what seems to be an educated, aware and caring community. I’m rooting for you.


  • Bonaire sounds like an interesting place to vacation. Too bad the cruise ships are making their way there. It’s so hard to balance. Tourism is destroying Phuket in Thailand too. Once unspoilt beaches now with so much garbage washing up on shore. 😦


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