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No Lifeguards On Cruise Ship Duty

passengers in and around an on-deck cruise ship pool
photo by Gary Bembridge

Family cruise lines do their best to create the impression that passengers don’t have to worry about anything on board. Lodging, transport, food and entertainment will all be seen to by the onboard staff.

Yet passengers looking for safety at pools and water attractions should be prepared to fend for themselves.

This, at least, seems to be the attitude on most major cruise lines. I was surprised to discover that, on even the largest ships, no lifeguards are on duty at swimming or wave pools. This recently came to my attention via the case of a 4-year-old who was left in critical condition after nearly drowning in a wave pool on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. The Miami Herald reported that the boy was initially treated by the ship’s medical team, until the ship could return to Florida’s Port Everglades, where the boy was met by medical crews to transport him to a hospital.

In an email after the incident, Royal Caribbean representative Cynthia Martinez said the company does not hire lifeguards, but does place warning signs near all pools advising passengers that they swim at their own risk. The average 4-year-old, however, can’t read a warning sign. This approach is not unique to Royal Caribbean. Carnival, Princess Cruises and Norwegian don’t employ lifeguards on board, either. Disney Cruise Line, the first and so far only major cruise line to add them, only did so as recently as 2013.

Cruise companies compare their vessels to hotels, another venue where signs often warn that no lifeguard is on duty and guests swim at their own risk. That analogy breaks down quickly on close examination. In most hotels, small children stay in the room with their parents or guardians most of the time. If they go to the pool at all, they go with an adult who takes them there. Hotel pools are often isolated away from the lobby or other public spaces, and small children seldom have even the opportunity to slip away from their parents. Families staying at hotels also typically spend large portions of the day out and about, visiting other sights and attractions. A family vacation in, say, Orlando, does not usually involve too many waking hours at an Orlando hotel.

A cruise ship is really more like a theme park. Guests spend the day wandering through a variety of attractions, including those involving water, with many other people around. I don’t know of any water park, and certainly none in the United States, that lacks a crew of lifeguards who constantly watch for trouble in the water. Also, unlike land-based water parks and hotels alike, cruise ships stray far from the nearest hospital, leaving passengers completely reliant on the onboard medical team until the ship can at least approach land.

The accident on Oasis of the Seas was not an isolated incident. Another 4-year-old’s near-drowning in April 2013 is widely considered to be the catalyst for Disney Cruise Line’s decision to finally hire lifeguards for its ships. In early 2014, one child died on a Norwegian cruise, and his brother was seriously injured; another child drowned on a Carnival ship the previous fall. In the case of the death on Carnival, a Carnival spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times that the child’s parent was present when he drowned.

This raises another point that is worth bearing in mind. While parents are the first and best layer of supervision for a child, cruises are designed to be distracting. They are full of other passengers, entertainment and food options pulling at the attention of both parents and young children. Even a properly attentive parent may not have the training to notice when a child is in trouble in the water. Drowning is typically silent, involving little splashing or calling for help, which explains why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, in 10 percent of child drownings, an adult watches the event without understanding what is happening.

The CDC further reports that one in five people who die from unintentional drowning are children 14 and younger, and that drowning is responsible for more deaths among children between the ages of 1 and 4 than any cause other than birth defects. While parents can and should learn what drowning looks like, a professional lifeguard is a much better bet to quickly identify a child in distress. Shifting this responsibility entirely onto parents is irresponsible and misguided in a cruise ship setting.

If I were a grandfather and one of my daughters told me she was contemplating taking her young children on a cruise, I have to imagine I would caution her that most such cruises lack any sort of professional oversight from lifeguards. As we know too well, even for the most responsible parents, it only takes a minute for a young child to slip out of a line of sight. In the time it takes to find the child again, tragedy can all too easily strike.

It is to Disney’s credit, more or less, that it finally corrected this oversight, though it is a shame that it took an accident for it to do so. Yet most of the industry evidently sees no reason to change. The question, at this point, is what it would take before they did. These incidents keep happening, and they will continue if nothing changes. Small children plus a crowded and hectic environment plus water is a recipe for such tragic accidents.

I have nothing against cruise lines and the people who run them, but I marvel that they can fall asleep at night knowing that on one of their ships, a small child might slip into an unwatched pool at any moment. How many kids must die, and how many parents, siblings and grandparents must have their lives shattered, before cruise line executives will do what obviously needs to be done?

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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