(7:30 p.m. EDT) -- A new threat to the Gulf oil spill cleanup has appeared on the scene -- and its name is Alex. The Atlantic hurricane season has begun, and while the first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Alex, is unlikely to directly cross the oil spill, the high winds and rough seas stirred up by the storm may hamper cleanup efforts and push oil further inland.
According to the Associated Press, outer winds from the storm (especially should it become a hurricane as predicted) could push more oil inland and 12-foot waves could impact the cleanup effort, as oil-skimming boats would need to return to shore and booms may need to be taken out of the water. However, BP's containment system should continue to operate.
Unrelated to the storm, tar balls -- pieces of the Gulf oil slick that have broken off -- have begun coming ashore in Mississippi as of Sunday, according to reports by Reuters and other outlets. So far, tar balls have reached Alabama as well as beaches near Pensacola, Florida, near the cruise ports of New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa.
Gulf cruisers continue to ask, "Will my upcoming cruise be impacted?" and spokespersons for Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Disney Cruise Line continue to confirm that cruises have been departing on schedule. As always, changing weather patterns and currents could impact how close the oil comes to cruise ports and future departures could be affected.
Which ports and ships could be affected?
Although oil has been washing up on beaches in Alabama, the Bay of Mobile remains "open to sea vessels," reports Carmen Gibson, a public information officer for the Joint Information Center. Although small streams of oil have entered the bay, they are avoidable by ships. Gibson says that booms -- at-sea barriers -- are helping to keep the oil from getting into the bay, and possibly could maintain an oil-free path between the shoreline and the oil spill that cruises can traverse.
Carnival Elation, which sails from Mobile, has high priority at the decontamination center should it need its hull cleaned, but Carnival representative Vance Gulliksen confirms that the ship has not needed any such cleaning so far -- and that Carnival ships have been able to successfully sail around the spill.
A representative from the Port of Mobile did not have additional information to share, but reaffirmed that the port has not yet been impacted and that Alabama is doing everything possible to make sure oil is kept out of Mobile Bay.
In addition to Mobile, we're keeping a close eye on ships that call on Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas, as well as those that turn around regularly in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, New Orleans and Tampa. Lines, as mentioned above, include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Disney Cruise Line.
What's the cruise impact?
Although Carnival -- which stands to bear the greatest impact, as it sails from Mobile, New Orleans and Florida ports -- reports that "ships sailing from New Orleans and Mobile are making slight course alterations as necessary to avoid the most heavily impacted spill areas," Gulliksen reports that Carnival Triumph is now departing as scheduled. Previously, the ship's departure time had been altered so it could traverse oily areas of the Gulf during daylight hours.
Cruise Critic member Rockhound62 posts, "Just got back from a cruise out of (and back to) Mobile ... on the way back you could see an oily sheen covering the water at sunset the evening before we docked. The water churned up by the boat was a dull olive green, a color we hadn't seen all trip. There was a slight smell, but not overwhelming. They say the oil forms a layer thinner than a human hair on the water, and this is what we were seeing." Other members have posted that most people are not reporting any smells of oil from their cruise ships, though a few claim to have smelled oil -- either from their cruise ships or from their homes in Alabama and Louisiana.
Cruise Critic member and travel agent Jeano222 spoke to a Carnival representative and reports the following: "In conversation I asked about how Carnival is going to handle sailing from gulf ports that might be jeopardized by the spill and was told they are discussing changing U.S. gulf ports based on need. They would relocate ships for embarkation and disembarkation and bus as necessary. As of right now, things are remaining normal, but they are planning for any complication." However, Gulliksen would not comment on any contingency plans at this time.
What should I do?
At this time, all cruises are sailing as usual; stay tuned.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor