LAMOTREK ATOLL, Caroline Islands — Ecotourism doesn't mean much to the handful of Micronesian villagers who stand on the beach watching us arrive in rubber landing craft at their tiny island in the central Pacific near the Equator.
We are about 90 travelers--American, Japanese, German, Swiss, Australian, Canadian, Brazilian and British--temporarily disembarked from a ship being billed as the world's "first environment-friendly expedition ship" and the possible "model of non-polluting ships to come." We are on the inaugural voyage of Salen Lindblad Cruising's brand-new Frontier Spirit, a 164-passenger vessel that left Guam for Papua New Guinea on Nov. 8.
We learn we are carrying the aspects of civilization that interest the Micronesians most--cold Coca-Colas, filter-tipped cigarettes and an engineer who can repair their broken generator so they can again watch videos on the VCR attached to the community's one television set.
But they would probably be unimpressed, should they venture below deck, by our ship's state-of-the-art systems for disposing of garbage without spoiling the environment, because garbage is something these people don't have.
They use everything the sea or others bring to their shores. Remains of crashed World War II Japanese fighter planes make shelters for dogs and chickens; Japanese plastic fishing floats, cut in half, are handy as food dishes for chickens and pigs; washed-up bottles store rainwater or make ornamental borders around family graves, and pieces of plywood and corrugated metal are incorporated into the walls of their thatch-roof houses.
Such is not the case with cruise ships, however, even luxurious expedition vessels filled with passengers passionate about saving the environment.
Aboard the Frontier Spirit, however, a corner of consciousness has been turned. Instead of bingo, we have lectures on identifying sea birds or how a coral reef is formed. Instead of floor shows or dancing after dinner, we may watch National Geographic videos about sharks or life on atolls.
And no future archeologist is likely to find any clues we passed by here on the way south toward the delicate and threatened ecosystem of Antarctica.
Frontier Spirit was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe, Japan, the first expedition ship to be created in 26 years. Reflecting the new attitude of ecologically aware tourism, it carries one crew member who is solely responsible for separating and processing shipboard garbage into environmentally acceptable components.
In one machine, glass is smashed into tiny fragments that are sifted and released into the sea, where they settle on the sand to be additionally pulverized by nature. Paper is compressed into small packets and burned in the incinerator.
Another machine shreds and grinds metal into easy-to-store fragments that are held in a special compartment with compacted plastics to be returned to disembarkation ports.
Food garbage is compacted into small bales, with all liquid removed, and what can be burned is disposed of in the incinerator. The rest is stored in an air-tight refrigerated compartment until it can be off-loaded at a port that can handle such garbage.
There is an oil separator in the ship's bilge system that removes the waste oil, which is then burned in the incinerator, while the water is returned to the bilge. The ship uses only marine-diesel or gas-oil, cleaner fuels than the heavy-duty bunker or sea oil that most ships use.
A fresh-water vacuum toilet system throughout the vessel requires less water to operate, according to the cruise line, than usual shipboard systems. The waste is transferred to a sewage treatment plant, where it is mixed with hydrochloride before being discharged into the sea.
Aside from its waste-disposal features, the Frontier Spirit carries a higher ice-class rating (an ability to cut through five feet of ice) than any other expedition ship currently in service, according to veteran Capt. Heinz Aye. It is also the largest expedition ship, according to Aye, who has made 59 Antarctic cruises and two transits of the Northwest Passage.
Passage on the Frontier Spirit costs about $320 a day per person, double occupancy, plus air fare, for a standard double cabin. Deluxe cabins and suites are about $490 per day and private verandas about $420 per day.
A glass-windowed, forward, observation lounge and library serves as a before-dinner meeting place for commentary from our resident naturalists about the day's events.
There's a swimming pool, sunbathing decks, a gym, sauna, beauty shop and a free self-service Laundromat with a drying room.
All cabins contain twin or queen-sized beds, sitting areas, view windows, hair dryers, mini-refrigerators, tiled baths with showers, color TV with remote control and a generous storage area. Stewardesses and dining-room waiters are European, and the menu is continental from Austrian executive chef Franz Sledak, former chef aboard Cunard's Sagafjord and QE2.
Upcoming itineraries include a 27-day Antarctica sailing beginning Jan. 31 to Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound; a 17-day voyage around Australia's Great Barrier Reef starting April 2, and an 18-day Papua New Guinea itinerary April 14. The three-day Alaska/Northwest Passage sailing is scheduled Aug. 18.
For free brochures, contact Salen Lindblad Cruising, 333 Ludlow St., P.O. Box 120076, Stamford, Conn. 06912-0076, (800) 223-5688 or (203) 967-2900.