Ocean Rangers begin sophomore season

Program is funded by berth fees from the cruise ship industry

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

Morris Mickelson is spending his summer in Alaskan waters onboard large cruise ships, but he's neither passenger nor crew.

Photos By Katie Spielberger
Photos By Katie Spielberger

Mickelson is one of 32 Ocean Rangers dispatched by the Ocean Ranger Program, which the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, piloted in 2007. Rangers are independent observers onboard cruise ships who monitor for compliance with state and federal environmental requirements, as well as proper sanitation, health and safety practices.

The program is the first of its kind anywhere, and was part of the Cruise Ship Initiative voters approved in 2006. The program was first fully implemented in 2008, and is funded by berth fees from the cruise industry. The DEC contracted Crowley Marine Services to hire and train the Ocean Rangers.

Mickelson, a Coast Guard-licensed marine engineer, said he joined the Ocean Ranger program to be involved in a new endeavor.

"I found out about (the Ocean Ranger jobs) through our union newsletter," Mickelson said. "It seemed like quite an adventure - brand new, never before done."

In 2008, Ocean Rangers were onboard 88 percent of the large cruise ships that entered Southeast Alaskan waters. More than half of the Ocean Rangers are returning for a second season, including Mickelson.

Mickelson said he works 12-hour days and spends two or three hours a day on paperwork. With an escort, he has access to the engine room and any other place on the ship he requests.

Like many of the Ocean Rangers, Mickelson initially experienced some difficulty last year in obtaining access to all areas of the ship.

"They were leery of getting me to the control room," he said.

According to the 2008 Ocean Ranger Summary Report put out by the DEC, Ocean Rangers reported adequate access on 67 percent of the ships. After a meeting between DEC and cruise industry representatives, access improved. Rangers later surveyed reported sufficient access on 93 percent of the ships.

"I don't feel any access problems now," Mickelson said. "It seems more relaxed towards us on the ship."

Mickelson said he spends a good deal of his time on cruise ships in the company of the ship's Environmental Officer. Mickelson said the EO will look for most of the same things that Ocean Rangers look for.

"There's really not a lot of difference," Mickelson said. "We might make some observations of crew members he doesn't see. He can't be everywhere, of course."

According to the DEC, there is some discrepancy between the items the Ocean Rangers and the cruise ships themselves report to the DEC.

DEC Cruise Ship Program Manager Denise Koch said that in 2007 cruise ships self-reported eight oil items to DEC's Division of Spill Prevention and Response. In 2008, cruise ships self-reported 14, of which nine had to do with the same vessel.

In 2008, Ocean Rangers reported 74 petroleum-related items to the DEC, along with 19 wastewater and 13 health items.

Thirty-one of the 74 oil-related reports were of "mystery sheens" in harbors, where it was not clear whether the oil originated from the cruise ship or another nearby vessel. Ships are not required by Alaska law to report pollution not believed to originate from them.

Being an independent observer can make an Ocean Ranger feel like a lone ranger on the ships, but Mickelson said he enjoys the mix of people he meets on the ships, but said sometimes he does feel like a lone ranger since he's neither passenger nor crew.

"In a way, it can be a lonely job," Mickelson said. "You can be out there with 3,000 people and there's no one you can have a heart-to-heart with."

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