Cruise ships: Floating palaces or floating petri dishes? A few high-profile incidents may have given some people the impression that a cruise vacation is virtually guaranteed to come with a side of the stomach flu. For example, in March 2017, an outbreak of norovirus sickened almost 8% of passengers and 3% of crew on the Coral Princess. Read a few more of those stories, and you might get the idea that cruise ships and sickness go hand in hand. But thankfully, that’s not the case.
Because it’s so easy for disease to spread on cruises, the CDC makes a special effort to ensure cruise lines are doing all they can to keep passengers safe and healthy. One aspect of the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program is random inspections. Many of those inspections go swimmingly – cruise lines don’t want a boat full of vomiting passengers, after all — but occasionally an inspector turns up something pretty gross.
Here are 15 dirty and disgusting things that the inspectors have spotted on cruise ships. The last one is something you definitely don’t want to encounter in your cabin.
1. Dirty beer taps
Planning to kick back by the pool with a cold beer on your next cruise? You’d better hope that someone’s cleaned the taps recently. During one inspection on the Hanseatic, a German-owned ship that specializes in trips to the Antarctic, the inspector noted that a beer tap “had a buildup of a brownish substance” on the inside of the dispenser. On the Un-Cruise Adventures Safari Quest in 2015, “the lines for the beer taps were soiled with debris when checked with a drinking straw.” It had been over two months since the taps had last been cleaned, according to the crew. Gross!
2. Unidentified pink slime
On the Carnival Paradise in June 2017, an inspector noticed a mysterious “pink substance” lurking on the outside of two different ice dispensers. There’s no word on what the pink gunk was, but we bet it’s not something you’d want floating in your drink. The Paradise was the lowest-scoring ship in Carnival’s fleet, receiving a failing grade of 83 during its last inspection. Other issues included improperly stored food, dead ants in a light fixture, and dripping water or leaks in various spots around the ship.
3. Taste-testing cooks
There’s nothing wrong with a cook testing the food he’s preparing, provided he does it in a way that minimizes germs spreading. Wearing gloves and using a single-use, disposable utensil should keep things safe. But that’s not what happened on board the MSC Divina in July 2017. An inspector witnessed an employee taking a “pinch of rice from the stir paddle to taste, then putting the paddle back into the food and not changing gloves or washing hands.”
4. Old hot tub water
You might have second thoughts about taking a dip in the ship’s hot tub after you hear this one. During a visit to Japan Grace’s Ocean Dream in July 2016, inspectors noted that the “whirlpool spa water was changed weekly, not every 72 hours,” as required by the CDC. When you think of all the people who might have sat in the hot tub over the past seven days, that’s pretty gross.
5. Moldy food
Mushrooms aside, no one wants to encounter a fungus in their meal. But inspectors occasionally discover food that’s gone a bit fuzzy. On the Crown Princess in 2017, a CDC official found a “pan containing peppers … soiled with white debris. A pepper in the pan had white mold.” On the cruise ship Victory I, owned by Cruise Management International, “two large containers of fruit smoothie were found full of mold on the lower shelf of the left shelving stands.” Both ships are among the handful that have received an “unsatisfactory” score from the CDC.
6. Dirty play areas
When you drop your kids off at the play area during a cruise, you obviously hope it’s pretty clean. That wasn’t the case on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas in May 2017. According to the CDC inspection report, “many of the large toys on the floor were soiled with dust and debris beyond a day’s worth of accumulation.” In addition, there was “black sediment and glitter” in the play pool and a “sticky substance” on the ball slide.
7. Crew members who work while sick
A sick crew member – especially one who works in food service – can quickly spread germs to both co-workers and passengers, leading to a nasty outbreak on a ship. That’s why the CDC has some pretty strict requirements regarding reporting illness and following up with a sick crew. Unfortunately, those rules aren’t always followed. The inspection reports note several instances on different ships of crew heading to the infirmary hours after their symptoms first appeared, sometimes having worked a shift in the meantime.
8. Cross-contamination and dirty hands
Keeping raw foods and cooked foods separate is food safety 101. But during June 2017 inspection on the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration, inspectors spotted crew members handling both raw and cooked foods as well as storing raw and cooked foods next to each other in the crew galley. The inspectors also needed to remind the crew to “practice frequent hand washing,” noted the report. Naturally, the ship earned a “below satisfactory” score on its latest inspection.
9. Improperly thawed food
Thawing food at room temperature can lead to bacteria growth. That’s why it’s a bit alarming that, on Ferries Del Caribe’s Kydon in July 2017, inspectors found raw fish thawing in a sink at room temperature. In the neighboring sink were “several raw pieces of chicken.” Such a thawing method is an invitation to food poisoning; the CDC requires that frozen meats either be thawed under refrigeration, in the microwave, or while completely submerged under running water below a safe temperature. The thawing problems were just one of many issues on the ship, including problems with the drinking water supply and food storage. The Kydon scored 58 out of 100 during its July 2017 inspection – 20 to 40 points lower than most other ships examined by inspectors.
10. Dirty dishes
The last thing you want when eating on a cruise ship is getting a bite of yesterday’s meal. But dirty dishes were an all-too-common violation that inspectors spotted. On the Kydon, dozens of bowls, plates, and saucers were “soiled with food debris,” while on another ship, supposedly clean drinking classes showed a white residue “that could be removed when scratched with a fingernail.” Sometimes, the dirty dishes aren’t the ones passengers see. On the Carnival Paradise, more than 40 pans were “encrusted with a carbonized material” that made them nearly impossible to clean.
11. Fake food safety logs
To make sure the food that passengers and crew eat on the ship is safe, logs keep track of food temperatures. But on the MS Hamburg in 2015, inspectors worried that the crew was faking the logs. For multiple days in a row, temperatures noted for foods like turkey breast, various sauces, and roast beef were the same. “It was highly unlikely that temperatures taken at different dates for foods of varying densities could have the same internal temperature,” noted the report, suggesting that people were faking the logs. The chef on that ship also didn’t seem to understand other basic food safety procedures. Yikes.
12. Suspect water sources
You’ve probably wondered where the water you drink on a cruise comes from. Well, here’s the answer: It’s likely drawn from the surrounding sea, then made safe to drink through a process like reverse osmosis. Making potable water in this way is perfectly fine, but the CDC has some rules about where the original water comes from. The ship shouldn’t draw water while in a polluted area, harbor, or at anchor. That’s why officials were a little alarmed to note that a ship that had been sailing in the Amazon was sucking up possibly dirty river water and turning it into drinking water.
13. An ant infestation
Pests are sometimes an issue for cruise ships, and reports dutifully note every fly or ant that inspectors spot in food prep or other areas that should be bug-free. But on some ships, the problems go beyond the occasional stray fly. Inspectors spotted numerous ants during a 2016 inspection of the Hanseatic. They also noted that the ship had been suffering from an “ongoing ant issue” for years and that the crew wasn’t regularly inspecting the problem areas.
14. People grabbing food without tongs
You should always wash your hands before eating and after using the restroom, but some passengers might not be so diligent. Using tongs to grab food from the buffet helps keep your fellow travelers’ germs from spreading to food, but not everyone uses them. On the MSC Divina, inspectors noticed that the crew was ignoring passengers who grabbed rolls from a bread basket with their hands. Tongs were also resting directly on top of food, making it extra-easy for germs to spread.
Sure, you want to bring home a souvenir from your cruise vacation, but a bedbug probably isn’t what you had in mind. Unfortunately, just like hotels on land, cruise ships aren’t immune to these stubborn pests. During an inspection of Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, the inspector noted that the ship’s pest logs included bedbugs (along with other pests) but that the crew had done no follow-up inspections. If the bedbugs were still there, it wouldn’t be the first time these nasty parasites plagued a cruise ship.