The Zenith is one of our most frequent arrivals. It is operated by Pullmantur, the Spanish arm of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. Seeing it reminds me of the dated but brilliant essay by David Foster Wallace, Shipping Out (or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), chronicling his seven-night-cruise aboard the same vessel in 1995, when it was owned by Celebrity Cruises. He describes the 1,800-passenger Celebrity Zenith as a “megaship,” but twenty-five years later, it is one of the smaller cruise ships that calls to Bergen. He also writes of the whiteness of the ship’s hull, its “Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay-action of the sea.” I think he would be amused to see the Zenith now, its once-glistening-white paint job covered under years of layers, its hull now painted navy blue. Rust seems to drip out of crevasses in the ship’s sides, and the scars from years of scraping rust reveal its slippage into environmental decay.
    Where do old ships go to die? Many are sent to the beaches of Alang, where they are cut up for scrap by hundreds of young Indian workers. Ships like the Zenith that were part of the industry’s massive growth of the nineties exist in a purgatorial state today, operated by companies that can still see some profit before the scrapyard. In the case of Pullmantur, Royal Caribbean (its partial-owner) uses it as a dumping ground for old ships. The fleet consists of two Celebrity ships and two Royal Caribbean ships that were too old to keep with the current fleet. Beginning in 2020, the Zenith will be chartered by Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO that has used various end-of-life ocean liners and cruise ships for its conferences since 2003. This will likely be the last reuse of the Zenith before it becomes too old and expensive to operate; Pullmantur has a history of selling vessels to Peace Boat a few years before they are scrapped.
    Most cruise ships have a shelf-life of twenty-five years for their original operators. Then, they are passed down or sold to other companies that operate them at lower costs as they incur more expenses. It is usually around this time that their hull color is changed from a glistening-white to dark-blue or navy-blue, a sign of defeat against the continuous battle with rust [of course, some modern cruise lines such as Holland America and Disney embrace the dark-blue or black hull aesthetic from the very beginning]. Many of the first purpose-built cruise ships of the eighties and nineties are now nearing the end of their life-cycles. Cruise lines are replacing their older 40,000-GMT vessels with modern 200,000-GMT ones. But what will happen when the 200,000-GMT vessels reach the end of their usefulness? Who will operate them towards the ends of their life spans? Maybe they will go straight to the scrapyard. Every year it seems about a dozen new massive ships are on order. Even companies like Saga Cruises, which have historically used older end-of-life ships, are now ordering new builds from the shipyards of Meyer Werft in Germany.


    You can actually see it early in the morning, resting in the sky over Bryggen. A heavy cloud of sulfur dioxide permeates across the city fjord. The older and newer ships alike are guilty of contributing to this, although the oldest ones without scrubbers are usually most responsible. In a dark twist, Bergen’s mountaneous geography - a great asset for its tourism - creates a giant rim around the city, trapping the summer’s pollution and resulting in acid rain and unhealthy air year-round.
    Norway is more concerned about pollution than other European ports, and a number of regulations have been passed to prevent harmful emissions within Norwegian waters. Drones are now used with special sensors to monitor the sulfur emissions of some cruise ships as they come and go. But most governments don’t have the power or financial freedom to turn away cruise money. Whatever traffic that Norway can successfully fend off will end up elsewhere, because that is how the global economy works.

Tenseness and Resolve

    The strangest thing about watching the cruise ships come in is that they usually move backwards. It saves them time from having to turn around when they leave. When I worked on ships, my cabin was often nestled in the bow. Underneath me, these massive propellors called bowthrusters were used to push the ship to the left or right. Every morning as we docked, the power of the bowthrusters would violently shake the entire cabin.
    Seeing a ship come in with five thousand people, or maybe a sequence of ships, fills me with dread. I’m responsible for the conveyor belt of people, in the hundreds, that get onto buses bound for Edvard Grieg’s house, the Fløibanen funicular, and the city’s historic fishmarket. Everyone wants to go shopping, at least until they see the prices. Many of the passengers go back to the ship for lunch, because in their minds, they’ve already paid for the buffet. Thousands of them wander up and down Bryggen and Festningskaien. In the industrial port, the local bus company is hired to run a shuttle service so that no one is run over by a crane or a truck. Bergen has up to six berths for cruise ships, although one of them (one of two in the industrial port, Dokken) is too dangerous to continue using, and so it will be phased out.
    The city can’t comfortably fit more than three ships in one day. This is evident if you try to walk around the city center on a day with four or five ships, which can happen in June or July. The line to take Fløibanen reaches around the block. There aren’t enough taxis to carry lost passengers back to their ships (this is a bigger problem than you’d think). The city has passed legislature restricting future calls to no more than three ships or eight thousand people per day, but because cruises are planned years in advance, its impact won’t be evident until 2021 or 2022.
    The company I work for seems to be in favor of this legislature. After all, having to support five ships in one day is extremely demanding; it’s not just the tour buses and tour guides that need to be brought in from elsewhere, but the ships need to be refueled and restocked. And when they finally leave, it’s like a giant sigh of relief across the whole city (or at least the places that tourists go). Watching a ship leave the fjord carrying its thousands of passengers away, off to Stavanger, Ålesund, Geiranger, Flåm, Eidfjord, Oslo...it’s comforting to think of the problem again contained. And as the sun retreats behind Løvstakken, I can finish my paperwork and go home.