The most dangerous cruise routes, ports, and destinations are in parts of the world where conditions are unpredictable — and help is nowhere nearby, travel analysts say
Cruising is a relatively safe form of travel, two cruise industry analysts told Insider.
But some cruise destinations and routes are prone to dangerous conditions and risky activity.
These are some of the most dangerous cruise locations around the world.
A favorite form of travel among global adventurers, cruises provide passengers with ease, access, and expectations of a safe journey.
But the cushy onboard experience of a commercial cruise can, in the rarest of occasions, turn dangerous, even deadly.
Weather conditions on the open ocean can turn on a dime, with unpredictable winds, fast-moving storms, and freak waves posing risks to both vessels and passengers. Just this month, US Coast Guard announced that it was aiding an investigation into a series of deaths and injuries among American citizens on Antarctic cruises over a two-week period last year.
"These incidents can happen anywhere at any time," Stewart Chiron, a cruise-industry analyst and CEO of the consumer cruise website cruiseguy.com, told Insider. "Even when you take extreme care, these are accidents, they're not on purpose."
Chiron and Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the cruise industry and runs the website cruisejunkie.com, broke down some of the most dangerous cruising routes and destinations around the world.
The world's southernmost continent is among the most beautiful — and dangerous — cruise destinations, according to Chiron and Klein.
"The reality is you're going into a part of the world where weather conditions can be unpredictable," Klein told Insider. "It's an area of the world where if something goes wrong, you can't call 911 and say, 'I need help.'"
As it's virtually uninhabited, Antarctica's remote location, as well as its relatively new status as an accessible vacation spot, is a major factor in its position as a perilous cruise destination. Rough seas and unreliable weather conditions also up the risk factor for passengers on these "bucket list" trips.
"We're dealing with a treacherous part of the world," Chiron said. "We're not talking about the sunny, calm Caribbean seas with light trade winds."
The region's dangers were on full display in November when three Americans died in two separate wave-related incidents on Antarctic cruises in a two-week period.
Two US citizens died on an inflatable boat during an excursion off the Portuguese-flagged World Explorer when the small boat capsized near Elephant Island in Antarctica. Nearly two weeks later, another American died and four others were injured while aboard the Viking Polaris after a rogue wave hit the ship and shattered several windows.
Ship travel through Antarctica, once limited to expedition and exploration ships, has become increasingly popular in recent years as more commercial cruise lines deploy passenger vessels to the remote region, where tourists can snap photos with penguins and spot killer whales up close.
But when disaster strikes, the area's remoteness can exacerbate danger.
"You're at the mercy of weather, the mercy of what other ships are around that can give help," said Klein, who has testified at Congressional hearings about the cruise industry.
In 2009, the MS Explorer, a cruise liner carrying more than 150 passengers, sank in freezing Antarctic waters after the captain drove the ship too fast toward a "wall of ice," an accident investigation found. Passengers were shepherded onto lifeboats, and with unusually calm weather conditions, nobody died.
Antarctica's perilous conditions mean accidents on the rough sea are inevitable, especially as more and more ships traverse the treacherous waters, the two experts said.
"The incidents that happened in late 2022, they're in our minds as though they're unique, but they're not," Klein said. "They've happened before, and they'll happen again in the future."
The Northwest Passage
The famed sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean has only in recent years borne witness to commercial cruising as the region's ice increasingly melts, which allows passenger vessels to sometimes make the treacherous trip though freezing waters.
But the waterway's shallowness, network of islands and inlets, and persisting ice make the Northwest Passage as dangerous as Antarctica is for cruising, Klein said, noting the perilous pack ice that makes navigation especially tricky.
The route was first navigated more than 100 years ago by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Today, passengers with enough cash can sail the Northwest Passage while on summer visits to Norway, Iceland, or Greenland.
Unpredictable sea conditions are a major risk variable in the Arctic, where vicious storms can spring up with no warning and the surrounding environment provides little protection for any ship caught in a gale.
In 2018, a Russian-flagged passenger ship with 162 people on board ran aground along the passage, prompting a rescue operation by a fellow ship, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard.
Anticipation of an influx of passenger vessels in the inhospitable area has prompted safety concerns among the Canadian Coast Guard about the likely need for future rescue operations.
"There is very little protection," Klein said of the Northwest Passage. "There aren't other ships around. You don't have a shipping route where people can come help you."
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
The waterway off the coast of North Carolina known as Cape Hatteras has a foreboding nickname that cements its status as a historically dangerous route: the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The area is the site of an unusually large number of shipwrecks dating back hundreds of years. Remnants of fallen vessels can be spotted from the shores. Estimates place the number of shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras at more than 2,000.
The cape is ripe for disaster as the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of the Arctic current above an underwater land mass of ever-shifting bays and sandbars known as Diamond Shoals.
"There's a reason so many of the old ships sank there," Chiron said.
Modern cruise ships are more technically advanced and better equipped than their 19th- and 20th-century counterparts to face the storm conditions often seen near Hatteras.
But in 2016, a passenger ship bound for the Bahamas had to turn around and return to New York after a severe storm near Cape Hatteras injured four people.
Cruise lines avoid dangerous ports
While rough seas and high winds can make ocean travel dangerous, uncertainties on land pose their own risks for visitors.
Commercial cruise lines, which are in the business of making money and ensuring every passenger gets home alive, are understandably risk-averse when it comes to port destinations that might be dangerous, Klein said.
Cruise lines will change entire itineraries for the long term should a popular land destination become racked with civil unrest or increasing crime rates, according to Chiron and Klein.
Egypt, whose cities were once a mainstay on several cruise itineraries, offered passengers the chance to visit pyramids and explore both Cairo's and Alexandria's history. But the country has seen a steep decline in visiting cruise ships since the Arab Spring took hold in the Middle East in the early 2010s, Chiron said.
Ports in the Dominican Republic led to a similar story in the 1980s, Chiron said, after spending years as common stopping points for passing ships. Rising crime throughout the country at the time kept cruises away for many years, the expert said, adding that the country was back to being a popular stop for modern seafarers.
In 2005, the Seabourn Spirit, a luxury cruise ship now named Star Breeze with 161 crew and passengers on board, was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The capture attempt ultimately failed when crews drove the pirates off using the ship's water hose.
Even common cruising routes can be racked by dangerous conditions
Even the calmest of tropical seas or most popular of cruising destinations can be hit with an unexpected storm or freak incident, the two experts said; it's just part of ocean travel.
"You'll see plenty of winter sailings to and from the Northeast to the Caribbean where ships are hit by rogue waves," Chiron said.
Likewise, ships making standard transatlantic trips can sometimes pull into a New York port with several feet of snow on the ship, having navigated through a winter storm, Chiron added.
While cruise companies and crews review weather conditions constantly, some things are impossible to predict.
Chiron and Klein both said passengers have a responsibility to mentally prepare and educate themselves of any inherent risks involved in their cruise travel and should always be prepared for a change in plans.
Cruising, however, remains a relatively safe form of travel and vacation, they said.
"It's more a sense of having a respect for nature," Klein said.
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