Your one-stop shop for health and safety data on cruise ships
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For more than 22 million passengers each year, a cruise is a dream vacation, an all-inclusive journey of fun and luxury, a chance to simply relax.
But for hundreds of people, the reality is far from the dream. Last year over 1,700 passengers and crew members fell sick from gastrointestinal illnesses like norovirus. Since 2012 at least seven children have drowned or nearly drowned in cruise ship pools that rarely have full-time lifeguards. This year, a 21-year-old college student fell overboard and was never found -- one of at least two dozen incidents in the last two years in which cruise passengers or crew have gone overboard, according to media reports.
The dangers aboard cruises range from the exotic to the familiar: Crime, though less common than on shore, does happen. Victims sometimes find themselves without much recourse as private security staff juggle the competing priorities of responding to and reporting wrongdoing and protecting the interests of their employers. Only a fraction of crimes aboard cruise ships are publicly reported, and many less serious crimes, like petty theft, may never be reported at all. According to Coast Guard crime statistics, at least 94 people have been sexually assaulted on cruise ships since 2010.
Thanks to laws that allow cruise lines to register their ships outside the U.S., crew members work with little U.S. labor protection and often work long hours for low pay, even as the cruise industry reaps over $40 billion in revenue every year in the U.S. alone.
“These cruise ships are like floating cities with their own set of laws,” said Spencer Aronfeld, a Miami-based attorney who specializes in cruise ship injury cases.
The vast majority of cruise passengers travel safely and return refreshed. Still, what follows is a tour of the health and safety risks that every passenger should know about before heading on a cruise, as well as detailed records about the hundreds of ships that set sail every week. Whether you’re planning a family vacation or just want to know more about a ship, this is your one-stop shop for data on cruises.1
Use the blue search box to search our database of over 300 ships that make port in the U.S. You'll be able to see their health and safety records going back as far as 2010, as well as their current position and deck plans.
Many cruise ships get passing health grades from federal inspectors, but even ships with perfect scores are at risk for outbreaks of illness.
Can you spot the problems?
Over 200 deficiencies from CDC inspections mention food and dish trolleys, in many cases regarding improperly stored food or trolleys soiled with grease or food debris.
Sick crew members working in the kitchen may contribute to the spreading of diseases like norovirus.
Dirty Pots & Pans
Federal inspectors look for unsanitary conditions in the kitchen like soiled pots and pans in food preparation areas.
Cruise ships, housing thousands of people in close quarters for long stretches of time, provide an ideal environment for the rapid spread of contagious diseases. Not a year goes by without news stories detailing outbreaks aboard cruises, often of a particularly nasty and highly contagious bug called norovirus. Characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, norovirus spreads extremely quickly through person-to-person contact as well as through contaminated food, water or infected surfaces.
Norovirus is by no means limited to cruise ships. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the bug sickens 19 million to 21 million people every year in the United States, and only 1 percent of all reported outbreaks occur on cruise ships. But even though they are far more likely to contract norovirus on land, people continue to associate cruise ships with norovirus. This is in part because cruise outbreaks must be reported to the federal government and information about them is easily accessible on the CDC’s website, sometimes leading to vivid news reports. Norovirus cases at restaurants, hotels or schools are typically reported first to local health authorities rather than directly to the federal government.
“On an airplane, if one of the restrooms is contaminated and the virus hits days later, the passengers are scattered and no one’s there to connect the dots,” said Andrew O. Coggins Jr., a cruise industry expert and professor of management at Pace University. “On the other hand, on a cruise ship... everyone’s going to be in close proximity and it’s going to be noticeable.”
Certain aspects of cruise ships increase the likelihood of an outbreak: close living quarters in what is essentially a sealed environment; large groups of people embarking on the ship who could potentially be carrying diseases caught on land; shared public spaces, buffet lines and food. It’s a top priority for the CDC and cruise lines to properly maintain sanitation standards. Hygiene measures like hand washing and quick diagnostic tools can help keep diseases from spreading. Cruise ships have hand sanitizer pumps throughout, as well as signs advising passengers to wash their hands “as often as possible.”
Twice a year, each ship that makes port in the U.S. is inspected by a team from the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program, which grades a ship on a 100-point scale. Scoring below 86 is considered failing. In recent years, only a few ships have failed. But even ships that pass sometimes suffer outbreaks. Critics often blame contaminated food or water, but according to the CDC there is no consensus on the causes of norovirus outbreaks.
Almost every year, a child drowns in a cruise ship pool, most of which have no lifeguards.
Can you spot the problems?
The last few years have seen half a dozen cases of children drowning or nearly drowning in cruise ship pools, most of which have no lifeguards.
Despite an abundance of "Wash Hands as Often as Possible" signs, passengers do get sick, and shared public spaces increase the likelihood of infecting others.
Just this week a ten-year old girl was pulled unresponsive from a pool on the Norwegian Gem, the latest in a tragically consistent trend of young children drowning in cruise ship pools about once a year.
Earlier this year a four-year-old Italian boy on the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. nearly drowned, only seven months after a six-year-old boy almost drowned on another Royal Caribbean ship. In 2014, two brothers were pulled unconscious from a pool on the Norwegian's Breakaway. Only one of them survived.
The majority of cruise ship pools are not staffed by lifeguards. Disney is the exception – the company began hiring lifeguards in late 2013 after a six-year old drowned aboard the Carnival Victory. and a four-year-old nearly drowned on the Disney Fantasy.
According to the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA, a trade organization of cruise lines in North America, cruise lines follow the same practice as the overwhelming majority of hotels and resorts: placing numerous “swim at your own risk” signs around their pools.
“We have highly visible signage to alert guests to the fact that a lifeguard is not on duty,” said a spokesperson from Norwegian Cruise Line, adding that Norwegian also requires that children under 12 at the pools be accompanied by an adult at all times.
Royal Caribbean follows a similar practice, noting that while it does not have lifeguards by its pools, it does have signs to notify guests of this fact. “We strongly recommend that children not be in the pool area unsupervised,” said a spokesperson for the line.
While rare, crimes like sexual assaults do occur on cruise ships and passengers may not always be aware of how their rights change at sea.
Can you spot the problems?
Sexual assaults, while rare, are the No. 1 crime on cruise ships.
Only a theft of more than $10,000 is required to be reported to the FBI or Coast Guard, so reports of many petty thefts never reach the public.
Cruise tickets often contain restrictive clauses that limit passenger rights in the aftermath of an accident or crime.
When a crime occurs on land in the U.S., police and prosecutors pursue criminal investigations in relatively uniform ways, following established protocols to collect information, protect victims and preserve evidence. But the minutes, hours and days after a crime occurs on a ship can unfold very differently.
For example, instead of calling 911, crime victims on cruise ships typically alert onboard private security officers employed by the cruise line. Critics say this could lead to a conflict of interest, since these security officers are responsible both for the initial response to a crime (including deciding whether and when to report the crime and preserving the crime scene) and for protecting the reputation of the cruise line.
“On the one hand the cruise ships see it in their business interest to keep the passengers safe, therefore it is effective to have a good security regimen on board,” said Anamika Twyman-Ghoshal, an assistant professor of criminology at Stonehill College who specializes in maritime crime. “However… if the security officers are employed by the cruise line there will be concern that they can manipulate the numbers recorded or simply change how incidents are defined.”
The cruise industry insists that its first and foremost priority is to protect passengers and that cruise lines do everything they can to respond immediately to the needs of victims, secure the crime scene and preserve evidence so that law enforcement can carry out an investigation.
“Suggesting that there's a conflict of interest portrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the cruise line,” said Bud Darr, senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at CLIA, the cruise line industry association. “I think that it’s absurd to think that the cruise line would view themselves as a criminal investigation body, and insulting to suggest that we have any less interest in criminals being prosecuted than any other responsible members of our society.”
Alerting security officers rather than calling 911 is not the only difference between cruise-based and on-shore investigations, according to the FBI. Law enforcement may not get to a ship right away. Jurisdiction issues can prevent or hold up an investigation if the ship does not enter U.S. territory. International witnesses and suspects can pose added complications.
“The fact the crime occurs on the ocean also allows easy disposal of evidence,” said FBI spokesman Christopher Allen, “including the potential disappearance of the victim’s body in the case of a homicide.”
The cruise line industry association points out that this statement is speculative and could apply to lots of situations on land, too, emphasizing that serious crime on cruise ships is extraordinarily rare compared to rates on land.
Cruise lines that make port in the U.S. are required to report crimes including homicides, assaults that result in serious injuries, sexual assaults and thefts of more the $10,000 to the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard. Because of maritime laws, the FBI typically takes the lead in investigating them. On land, similar crimes would likely fall to state or local law enforcement. But no such reporting requirement exists for less serious crimes, like petty theft, so unless a passenger reports the crime to on-shore law enforcement, it’s as if the crime never happened.
In the weeks or months following a serious assault, passengers have very different legal options than they would have had on land. This is in part because passengers, sometimes without knowing it, effectively sign away many of their legal remedies when they book a cruise. The fine print of many cruise tickets includes clauses that place limits on the types of grievances passengers can sue for, the window of time they have to bring a lawsuit, and even the location of a trial.
“If Carnival was driving a delivery truck and rear-ended you, you’d have a whole different set of rights than you have as soon as you cross the gangway,” said attorney Aronfeld.
Many of the passengers aboard the Costa Concordia, a massive cruise ship that struck rocks and capsized off the coast of Italy in 2012, killing 32 people, found out about these restrictive tickets after disaster struck. If they were unhappy with the €11,000 Costa offered to each surviving passenger ($71,000 for loss of life), they had limited options because those amounts were specified in the fine print of their tickets. And if they did decide to sue, they couldn’t file in U.S. courts because their tickets specified all lawsuits must be brought in Italy.
There are, however, legal limits on how far these clauses can go to absolve cruise lines of responsibility. Cruise lines cannot, for example, give passengers three months to sue for an injury (they must allow at least one year). Nor can they make passengers sign waivers that immunize the cruise lines from all responsibility for injuries or death caused by negligence or other factors that are the cruise lines’ fault.
Which is exactly what happened in 2011 on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. A passenger sued the cruise line after suffering an injury on the "FlowRider," a simulated surfing/body boarding activity. The cruise line denied responsibility because the passenger had signed a special waiver before taking the ride giving up her right to sue. But an appellate court ruled the waiver was unenforceable and prohibited by federal maritime law.
When a crime occurs, there is no guarantee that the public will find out about it. Some alleged crimes are never reported at all, and others may see delays of months or years before they are made public, according to a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office. For example, while cruise lines reported 959 crimes to the FBI between 2011 and 2013, only 31 crimes were made public. The vast discrepancy is in part due to a 2010 law that only required the cruise industry to publicly release statistics for crimes no longer under investigation by the FBI.
While some cruise lines have begun voluntarily disclosing alleged crimes (including those still under investigation), they are not required to do so. New legislation that would require this type of reporting has yet to be finalized.
While notoriously underreported, sexual assaults still top the list of crimes aboard cruise ships. In 2014 alone, three of the major cruise companies – Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian – reported 61 alleged rapes and other sexual assaults (these numbers reflect only allegations, not closed cases). This past April, a 25-year-old crew member pled guilty to sexually assaulting a woman while she was sleeping in her stateroom aboard the Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Quantum of the Seas
“This crew member’s actions were completely unacceptable and a blatant violation of our policies and procedures,” said Cynthia Martinez, a spokesperson from Royal Caribbean, who also noted that the crew member is no longer employed by the cruise line.
On another Royal Caribbean ship in 2006, Sacramento native Laurie Dishman was raped in her room by a janitor posing as a security guard. According to her testimony in a Senate hearing on cruise ship crimes, when Dishman reached out to cruise personnel for help, they suggested that she be the one to collect any relevant evidence in garbage bags and bring it to them. She also testified that the cruise line personnel contaminated the scene, mishandled and destroyed evidence, delayed notifying the FBI, and delayed providing medical treatment. The FBI eventually declined to prosecute the case, citing insufficient evidence.
When asked for comment on the Dishman case, Royal Caribbean spokesperson Martinez said “I don't feel it would be appropriate for us to respond to your questions regarding Laurie Dishman. They may be best suited for the FBI or Ms. Dishman herself.”
Though allegations of sexual assault typically involve adult female passengers, over a third of those who reported sexual assaults on cruise ships in 2012 were minors. Crew members also report such attacks every year.
Just last month Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., two lawmakers who have pushed for stricter regulations of cruise ships, urged the Coast Guard to certify Victim’s Advocates for cruise lines to make sure victims know their rights and that cruise lines are in compliance with the laws.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has also urged lawmakers to set stricter reporting requirements for sexual assaults on cruise ships and to make more resources available to victims. The organization has published a guide for how to protect yourself on a cruise ship and what to do if you are sexually assaulted on board.
Accidents and injuries – mostly related to falls – happen occasionally on cruise ships and can affect crew members as well as passengers.
Can you spot the problems?
Trips and falls are the most common types of injuries aboard a cruise ship. Raised doorsills and slippery sections of the deck may pose particular risks.
"Objects blocking the means of escape" were one of the top deficiencies found during U.S. Coast Guard cruise ship inspections in 2014.
Crew members can work long hours – sometime 16-hour days – with no weekends and little time off.
By far the most common accidents that people suffer on cruise ships are trips and falls. While “Caution: Watch Your Step” signs are ubiquitous, ships are often in motion and sometimes slippery, and passengers are sometimes under the influence of alcohol, which is available in abundance on board.
“A cruise ship is not just a floating city, it’s a rocking, wet, moving city,” said attorney Aronfeld, “People trip and fall all the time.”
Other accidents that affect many passengers at a time – like fires or shipwrecks – are rare but occur once in a while. An engine room fire on the Carnival Triumph shut down power (and working toilets) to the entire ship in 2013, stranding over 3,000 passengers for days on the what was soon dubbed the “Poop Cruise.” Last year, a fire on Oceania's Insignia killed three people and hospitalized five more – not passengers, but contractors and crew members.
Crew members, who are typically from developing countries in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, face a special set of challenges at sea. Even if they work on cruise ships that frequent U.S. ports, they are for the most part not protected by U.S. labor laws. That’s because most cruise lines, even Disney and Carnival, are not registered in the United States. Instead, the majority of cruise lines register their ships in countries like the Bahamas and Panama, and it is the labor laws in these countries that determine crew members’ rights and protections. Critics refer to these registrations as “flags of convenience,” a practice they say lets ship owners take advantage of low taxes, minimal regulation and cheap labor.
All crew members have some legal protections set forth by a 2006 international law called the Maritime Labor Convention. Sometimes referred to as the Seafarer’s Bill of Rights, the convention lays out rights to decent working conditions, from hours and wages to medical care and health and safety protections. The majority of countries where cruise ships are flagged have ratified the convention (the U.S. has not yet). Some countries even outperform the U.S. in implementing these regulations.
And cruise ships may be a better place to work than other sorts of vessels. According to the ITF, a global federation of transport workers unions, cruise ship workers seldom endure the sorts of hardships involving wages or basic rights violations as the crews of cargo and container ships.
“When seafarers who work on cruise ships make a complaint, it is more often about victimization, sexual harassment, cultural misunderstanding, fatigue, loneliness, long working hours, disputes with onboard managers or share of service charges or tips,” said Fabrizio Barcellona from the ITF Seafarers’ division, “rather than complaints about wages.”
People going overboard is a persistent problem for cruise lines.
Can you spot the problems?
Around 20 people go over the rails of a cruise ship each year. Cruise lines say most incidents are either intentional acts or caused by reckless behavior.
Most cruise lines offer all-you-can-drink packages, which critics say encourage too much drinking and can lead to slips, falls or crimes.
Cruise ships are required to have enough lifeboats to fit everyone aboard. However, problems with lifeboats were among the top deficiencies found in 2014 safety inspections.
This past February, 21-year-old Cameron Smook, a student at Virginia Tech who was scheduled to graduate in the spring, fell off the Carnival Glory in the middle of the night. Despite a three-day search and rescue effort by the Coast Guard, he was never found. A few months before that, a 22 year old fell off the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and was rescued a few hours later by a Disney cruise that happened to be sailing by.
It is exceedingly rare for a passenger to fall off a cruise ship. According to data compiled by Ross Klein, a cruise critic who tracks media reports of passengers overboard, 22 people went overboard in 2014, out of roughly 21 million who took cruises. The cruise industry attributes most of these unfortunate cases to either reckless behavior or intentional acts like suicide. Cruise lines have implemented extensive video surveillance equipment aboard, but in the rare cases that passengers fall or jump from ships, this footage can be too little, too late to save them.
New technology could speed the detection of people falling into the sea. So-called “man-overboard” detection systems use a combination of radar and infrared sensors to detect when a human body has fallen off the ship. Combined with an alarm to alert the crew, proponents say these systems could save lives.
Most cruise ships have not yet installed these detection systems, however. And they don’t have to – the laws that protect passengers’ safety on board do not require it. Cruise lines caution that the systems are not yet reliable and may lead to too many false positives.
Safety experts counter that such technology offers the best available hope for saving lives.
“Cameras serve a good forensic purpose if they happen to catch the exact location of a rape or pickpocket, but they haven’t done anything to prevent or help rescue people going overboard,” said Marianne Molchan, a seaport and ship security expert who has written about man-overboard systems. “In my opinion, there is [detection] technology out there that's been tested in ship environments … and no one is talking about it.”
Congresswoman Matsui and Sen. Blumenthal have advocated making these systems mandatory, calling for the Coast Guard to require all cruise lines to install man-overboard systems on their ships with both an alarm and a video capture feature.
CREDITS & SOURCES
Illustrations: Josh Cochran, special to ProPublica. Data: Coast Guard Port State Information eXchange, Coast Guard Incident Investigative Reports, Coast Guard Marine Casualties & Pollution Data, IMO GISIS Marine Casualties, CDC Inspections & Deficiencies, CDC Outbreaks, CruisePage Man Overboard List, Local crime reports gathered by reporters Lynn Walsh & Dan Krauth, other local crime reports. Photos: VesselFinder. Icons: Jessica Lock, Juan Pablo Bravo,Hans Gerhard Meier.
1Details in these illustrations are inspired by David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. References to his seven night experience aboard the Nadir are hidden throughout. How many have you seen? Psst. Here are the answers.