Disturbing Details Behind What Happens When a Person Dies at Sea

Avid cruiser or not, the thought of dying at sea is enough to make anyone want to jump ship. But before you go freaking out, you’ll want to hear the facts.

Read on to learn everything there is to know about death on a cruise ship.

There are about 200 passenger deaths a year

cruise ship

Deaths at sea happen, though they’re not very common. | Alexiuz/iStock/Getty Images

We’d like to think one passenger death is one too many. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

While most cruise ship deaths are not the fault of the cruise line, they are, however, a reality for hundreds of passengers a year, which isn’t so surprising considering the number of cruisers out there.

According to The Telegraph, “There are an estimated 200 passenger deaths a year — actually remarkably few given the 21.7 million people worldwide that cruise each year.” (This number doesn’t include people who died from going overboard.)

Next: There’s one group of people who are most likely to die on cruise ships.

Most deaths occur among older passengers

A senior couple looking out at the ocean

The age-related deaths make sense. | Yobro10/iStock/Getty Images

It’s no secret the cruise industry appeals to an older demographic. And considering how many cruise lines specifically market toward older people — along with the fact that retirees have the time and money to take multi-month cruises — it makes sense that age-related deaths at sea aren’t that uncommon.

Next: The cause of most deaths-at-sea 

Most cruise ship deaths result from heart attacks

Transporting body

Check with your doctor before taking a cruise. | Pedro Nunes/AFP/Getty Images

While cruise ships that carry a majority of older passengers tend to experience more passenger deaths, there’s a variety of reasons a person may pass away on board. And the No. 1 reason? Heart attacks.

According to Cruise Critic, “The vast majority of deaths on cruise ships are natural, with most the result of heart attacks.”

So, if you’re planning on taking a cruise and you’ve had heart problems in the past, you may want to see your cardiologist before hopping on board.

Next: Here’s where they keep the bodies. 

Cruise ships have a morgue on board

Dead body with blank tag on feet

They are equipped to hold bodies until the ship returns to a port. | Andriano_cz/iStock/Getty Images

Cruise ships are required to have a morgue on board, complete with body bags and enough space for three to six bodies. The morgue is able to hold bodies of the deceased until a ship returns home or to another port where arrangements can be made.

The ship cannot, however, keep a dead body on board indefinitely. In most cases, the body must be taken off the ship after about one week. Of course, this can be an issue on longer cruises.

Next: A death certificate is not issued on board.  

Bodies are kept in the morgue until the ship arrives at its home port (or another large port) where a death certificate can be issued

Chinese cruise ship walking on the riverbank in Jianli, central China's Hubei province.

Returning a body home can get tricky. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

If a passenger dies during a shorter cruise, like a three-day Caribbean trip, for instance, keeping the body in the morgue until the ship returns home isn’t a problem. When a death occurs on a longer cruise that travels to remote locations, on the other hand, it becomes a bit more complicated.

Whether a body remains on the ship or is repatriated from a foreign port depends on the ship’s location. Furthermore, some ports demand that dead bodies are off-loaded no matter what. In this case, a death certificate is issued and the body returned back to its home country.

Next: If your loved one dies, help is available. 

Cruise lines have staff members trained to deal with family members of the deceased

sad family

Teams know how to deal with grieving families. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

It may sound strange that cruise ships have specially-trained employees to deal with this kind of thing, but it’s not. Cruise ships are basically floating cities, so they need to be prepared for any situation, which is why they have Guest Care Teams ready to assist should a death occur at sea.

“Care Team members are trained to deal with grieving people, but they are not grief counselors,” Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines, explained to Cruise Critic. “They are trained to help deal with the details of repatriating a body and contact[ing] a funeral home.” More specifically, these crew members can assist families in working with local authorities, making travel arrangements, and dealing with insurance.

Next: Travel insurance is key. 

The cruise will not pay the necessary fees

stressed woman looking at paperwork

If it’s not responsible, the cruise line won’t pay anything. | JackF/iStock/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, the cruise line won’t pay a dime when a death occurs naturally. Because the cruise line is not responsible, it has no legal obligation to cover any cost associated with transporting the body; crew members are simply there to provide assistance with making the arrangements.

As Cruise Critic points out, the repatriation process, which includes tons a paperwork and is generally a huge hassle, isn’t cheap. That said, purchasing travel insurance is crucial.

“All costs are the responsibility of the deceased person’s family but should be covered by travel insurance as long as death was not caused by an on-going medical condition that was not declared.” The Telegraph says.

Next: The most bizarre crimes to ever take place on a cruise ship will shock you.

Bizarre homicide

Scenic view of cruise liner deck and ocean

The victim’s husband tried to drag her body to the balcony. | Cassinga/iStock/Getty Images

In 2017, Kenneth and Kristy Manzanares took an Alaskan cruise to celebrate their anniversary. Authorities found Kristy’s dead body in the couple’s cabin covered in blood, next to her very-much-alive husband, who was also covered in blood, according to CBS News. All Kenneth had to say to the authorities was, “She would not stop laughing at me.”

Friends and family of the couple noticed nothing awry about the couple — one neighbor called the Manzanares and their three children the perfect American family. Accused of first-degree murder, Kenneth pleaded not guilty. He will stand trial on April 23, 2018, according to Fox 13.

Next: Where does all that waste actually go?

Environmental abuse

The cruise line tried to dump waste into the ocean. | iStock/Getty Images

When you take a cruise, try not to think about where all that waste goes — the sewage, the garbage … yuck.

Some cruise ships do the unthinkable — they dump that stuff right into the ocean. And in 2016, Princess Cruise Lines did it and got caught, according to Grunge. The company paid a whopping $40 million fine for dumping “oily waste” into the ocean.

This illegal practice significantly and negatively impacts the environment, too. An incident of this type, according to The Guardian, adds approximately 4,227 gallons of waste to the ocean.

That wasn’t the only Princess Line vessel that dumped illegally — investigators found four more followed suit. The last straw? Princess Cruise Lines tried to cover it up, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Next: Cruise ships as drug mules

Coke smuggling


The smugglers hid an enormous amount in their room. | Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In 2016, two Canadian 20-somethings left their homes in Quebec to go on an expensive, two-month cruise. Cut to the cruise ship docking in Australia and the Australian Border Force storming aboard with a pack of dogs.

The officers had been tracking the ship, and when they searched Mélina Roberge and Isabelle Lagacé’s room, they found more than 200 pounds of cocaine with a street value of around $22 million, according to ABC News. What an odd way to smuggle cocaine. At least the women got to visit 11 countries — including Colombia and Ecuador — before the authorities busted them in Sydney.

Next: Um, where’s the captain?

Ship abandonment

Stranded cruise ship fire

Thankfully everyone on board survived. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Although you might think this technically isn’t a crime, passengers onboard the Greek luxury line Oceanos would disagree. You’ve likely heard that a ship’s captain goes down with the ship if it sinks. He is supposed to be the last person off the boat — dead or alive. But Captain Yiannis Avranas had a different idea, according to Grunge.

In 1991, the Oceanos sank off the coast of South Africa. It was a pretty routine sink, and all passengers and crew eventually made it off the boat safely. Captain Avranas and some other officers, however, were among the first to leave the ship, while the others spent the night on the sinking vessel.

Avranas told The New York Times he was in a helicopter overseeing rescue efforts and tried to get back on board, but the helicopter crew advised him to stay in the air. Robin Boltman, the ship’s comedian, bravely stepped up to take command of the sinking ship.

Next: The cruise liner from hell

Hijacking and murder

Man pointing gun

Surely, it was a harrowing experience for everyone on board. | Paul Bradbury/iStock/Getty Images

The Achille Lauro was a ship that had seen its fair share of troubles. (It had collided with another ship and experienced onboard fires and explosions.) But after a brutal hijacking and murder happened, the Independent called it the “cruise liner from hell.”

In 1985, the Achille Lauro was headed to Israel’s port Ashdod when four Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists hijacked the ship, according to Grunge. But it gets much weirder.

One of the terrorists lost his temper with American, wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer — he shot Klinghoffer twice and ordered the ship’s crew to throw him and his wheelchair off the boat. When the ship finally sailed into Port Said, the gunmen surrendered, according to the Independent.

Next: An unsolved “crime”

Strange disappearance

Labadee is a port located on the northern coast of Haiti. It is a private resort leased to Royal Caribbean Cruises

A woman mysteriously disappeared from her balcony. | Alexiuz/iStock Editorial / Getty Images

In 1998, Amy Lynn Bradley disappeared from the Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas. The weird thing about this one? The mystery is still unsolved.

According to Oxygen, Bradley’s father, Ron, last saw her asleep on the cabin balcony at about 5:15 a.m. When her father got up at 6 a.m., she was gone. Apparently, Bradley’s family noticed the crew on the ship paying way too much attention to Amy. When the crew refused to anchor until they found her, the family thought they had targeted her for sex slavery.

It gets even stranger. A Navy man said he saw a woman in a brothel in 1999 who claimed she was Amy Bradley and asked him for help. Six years later, an organization to stop sex traffic found a photo that looked like Bradley — she was posing in her underwear.

Next: A grisly discovery

Dead baby on board

This story is horrific. | iStock.com

In October 2011, Alicia Keir sailed on the Carnival Dream to St. Martin. She took a secret with her: She was pregnant. She hadn’t told anyone because she wasn’t clear on who the father was, according to Ranker.

During the cruise, Keir gave birth — in her cabin, on her own. She wrapped the female infant in a towel and stowed her under the bed.

Keir went on to have a wonderful cruise, and when the ship docked, Keir went on her way. Imagine the cleaning crew’s shock when they found the dead infant under the bed. Keir pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. A judge sentenced her to one day in prison, but Keir didn’t even serve those 24 hours, according to CBS Chicago.

Next: These four men escaped manslaughter charges.

Drugged and left to die

american cruise lines ship

Dianne Brimble’s story is one of the scariest to take place on a cruise ship. | American Cruise Lines

Ranker lists the story of Dianne Brimble as one of the most horrific crimes to happen on a cruise ship. In September 2002, paramedics were called to a cabin that belonged to four men on a P&O cruise ship bound for Noumea and other Pacific ports of call. Brimble was unconscious on the bathroom floor and in her own excretion. She was pronounced dead 30 minutes later, due to alcohol and drug overdose.

Although witnesses say Brimble left with the four men the night before her death, and the men were accused of harassing and offering drugs to multiple women, including teenage girls, the men were ultimately cleared of most of the charges, including manslaughter.

“One of them even pleaded guilty to the vastly lesser charge of giving Brimble GHB, also known as the ‘date rape drug’ before she died,” explains Ranker. “The judge opted for no punishment in the case.”

Next: This is the most common type of crime on cruise ships.

Most common crimes on cruise ships?

Cruise ship crimes | Quartz

The most common type of crime on cruise ships is sexual assault. According to government data and Quartz, sex crimes easily outweigh all other crimes on board, and many victims are minors.

“The problem of sexual assault on cruise lines is a long-running one. The industry and the government have been reporting some data on these crimes for years. Yet the American public has only had a more complete picture since 2016, after reporting standards were changed,” explains Quartz. “These numbers are still likely smaller than in reality — sex crimes are generally under-reported, and what gets classified as an assault depends on the cruise line’s security officials. Experts point out that incidents are often miscategorized as lesser crimes.”

Additional reporting by Barri Segal.

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