Royal Caribbean's New Sustainability Pact

The Phillipines
••• Barry Garron

You may not think that a whale shark, the biggest of all fishes, would have much in common with an itty bitty firefly. Or that either of them has much in common with the world's second-largest cruise vacation company.

Yet the connection exists in the Philippines.

One of the leading centers for whale shark eco-tourism is the little town of Donsol on the island of Luzon. That’s where Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. announced a five-year partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, which has been working to make whale sharks accessible to tourists in an ecologically friendly way.

Fireflies

Oh, and the fireflies. As long as you’re visiting Donsol, you really ought to take a nighttime cruise up the Ubod River to see the clusters of fireflies that dart among certain trees like a twinkling display of holiday lights that someone forgot.

From time to time, the guide asks for a round of applause but not as a show of appreciation. The sound of clapping stimulates firefly activity. If caught in a hand, the firefly may spend several minutes climbing up and in between fingers. One of them hung around long enough to be dubbed “Sparky” by our small group.

Whale Sharks

But back to the whale sharks. They can grow to 18 meters (about 54 feet) but are nonetheless referred to as gentle giants. That’s because they have none of the teeth alluded to in “Mack the Knife.” Instead, they have wide mouths that gulp gallons of seawater at a time, filter out the plankton, and expel the rest.

That makes them a lot of fun to swim around, sometimes too much fun. In Donsol, to keep tourists from getting too friendly, the WWF has worked out rules enforced by the knowledgeable tour guides on each boat, the Butanding Interaction Officers. (Butanding is what the locals call the whale sharks.)

For example, while snorkeling is permitted, scuba diving is not. There are only six to a boat, which look like outrigger canoes. Touching is not allowed. There are limits on how long snorkelers can be near a shark (five minutes), how many boats can be near one shark and how many boats, in total, can be out to sea.

There are no guarantees that you will spot a whale shark on any given day. Your luck goes up between November and June and, particularly, from February to May. Our trip, in late January, resulted only in a fleeting glimpse of a fin, though even that was exciting.

So it was there, in the heart of whale shark country, that Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which operates Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur, Azamara Cruises and others, will make the world a better place for whale sharks and the humans who love them.

The Company Pledge

  • To get 90 percent of its wild-caught seafood from sustainable fisheries.
  • To get at least 75 percent of its farmed seafood for its operations in Europe and North America from farms that have been certified responsible.
  • To donate $5 million over the course of the five-year partnership to support WWF’s conservation efforts.
  • To provide information about whale sharks and responsible eco-tourism to the 5 million cruise passengers it serves every year.

Separately, RCCL made a donation of $200,000 for a conservation program in the Donsol area that includes a vehicle that teaches children in the area about the ecological heritage at their doorstep.

RCCL’s dozens of scientists and engineers could have embarked on these goals on their own but, Fain said, “by teaming up with the World Wildlife Fund, it gives us the opportunity to do something better than we could do by ourselves.”

As a whole, he said, the cruise industry is working hard to reduce its carbon footprint “but it’s a never-ending battle.”

The Philippines is particularly near and dear to RCCL. Fain said that more than 11,000 of the company's 65,000 employees are Filipinos, the most of any nationality. Their maritime tradition, knowledge of English and ability to convey a sense of pleasure and happiness makes them ideal employees, Fain said. Now there are plans to increase their numbers aboard RCCL ships.

Fain said the construction of nine new ships will increase the RCCL workforce to 100,000 in five years. He projects the number of Filipino employees will increase to about 30,000.

To meet those lofty projections, RCCL also announced an expansion of its training facilities in the Manila area. A new office in the Mall of Asia area, scheduled to open in May, will enhance Filipinos’ skills and careers. It will make recruitment and hiring more efficient as well as provide new continuing education and professional development programs.