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The Luxury Cruise That Turned Into a Rescue Mission

The Luxury Cruise That Turned Into a Rescue Mission

migrant boat dwarfed by the cruise ship it was photographed from
Courtesy Steven Glassman

The Celebrity ship turned a vacation into an effort to save lives.

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) -- Kester Howard was painting on a balcony of her luxury cruise ship when a startling announcement came over the loudspeakers.

A nearby boat appeared to be in distress, and the captain was turning around to reach them.

Howard, a retiree from Brisbane, Australia, grabbed her phone to record what was happening. She'd been on many cruises before, but this was something she'd never seen.

Gradually a white vessel in the distance came into focus, and a rescue operation began.

"Look how that boat's been put together. Those poor people," Howard said, recording and narrating from her cabin balcony as the cruise ship maneuvered to bring them aboard. "You see it on TV; you don't ever imagine seeing it in real life."

Days earlier passengers aboard the Celebrity Beyond had rung in the new year with a glitzy party, waving glow sticks as they counted down to 2023. The ship boasts "boundless views," on-board butlers and "rooms so luxurious you won't want to close your eyes." It was built to accommodate more than 3,200 passengers,

The makeshift boat bobbing in the massive cruise ship's wake on January 2 was different in almost every possible way.

No name was visible on its hull. It appeared to be cobbled together with metal and Styrofoam. Nineteen people were crammed inside, shoulder-to-shoulder, and they were shouting for help.

It took more than an hour for the rescue to unfold that day, as passengers on the cruise watched anxiously and awaited updates from the captain.

"We definitely came face to face with the reality of this situation," said Steven Glassman, who snapped photos of the rescue from one of the ship's upper decks.

Glassman is a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner, and well aware of the increasing number of makeshift vessels turning up on Florida's shores. But seeing a rescue at sea made the situation hit even closer to home. And at dinner that night, he said, many of the cruise's passengers were talking about what they'd witnessed.

"It makes you realize how fortunate we are," he said. "Here we are, sitting in a beautiful dining room on a beautiful ship and getting ready to eat a beautiful dinner, and we just watched people that had to be rescued. That's the stark reality."

Howard, Glassman and thousands of other passengers aboard the Celebrity Beyond weren't the only ones confronted with that reality. Views of the dramatic rescue were seen around the world after the ship's captain shared footage the next day with her 3.7 million combined followers on TikTok and Instagram.

It isn't new for cruise ships traveling through the Straits of Florida, like the Celebrity Beyond was that day, to come upon boats of Cuban migrants. But a series of recent rescues and social media posts about them have brought a fresh wave of attention to these dramatic moments at sea and the migration crisis behind them.

The number of migrants traveling in makeshift boats is on the rise. So is the number of cruise ships

In just over a week, from December 30 to January 7, at least six such rescues occurred in the region, including two aboard the Beyond.

Robert E. Rosen, a law professor at the University of Miami who teaches a course on legal issues in the cruise industry, calls the recent spate of rescues "amazing" but also says there's a logical reason behind it.

"The number of cruise ships has been increasing dramatically over the last decade. Not only are they larger, there are more of them," he says.

Couple that with an increasing number of migrants leaving Cuba via makeshift boats, traveling the same waters as they try to reach the United States, and it's a trend that Rosen says is likely to intensify.

It's difficult to pinpoint, though, whether cruise ships are crossing paths with migrant boats in distress more often.

The US Coast Guard says it doesn't track that data, and points out that other commercial vessels in the region have also assisted with migrant rescues.

Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a review site and online cruise community, says the phenomenon has been occurring for years.

"Certainly it's been in headlines lately. It's not new or even totally uncommon," she says. "I know many, many people who've been on a ship and say, 'This happened to me.'"

Whether or not these rescues are happening more frequently, social media appears to be changing the way we see them.

Celebrity BeyondSebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP/Getty Images

Footage from a cruise ship's captain gives a behind-the-scenes perspective

For centuries humans have told and retold stories of seafarers in distress.

In some ways, the story of the Celebrity Beyond and the homemade migrant boat it saved is another version of this age-old tale, but one with a distinctly digital twist.

Captain Kate McCue, who has millions of followers on TikTok and hundreds of thousands more on Instagram, shared video of the rescue and its aftermath, thanking her crew for jumping into action and saving lives.

In the flurry of responses that followed, McCue, already popular online for being the first American female cruise ship captain and for sharing entertaining day-in-the-life videos of life on board, drew praise from many for taking the time to help those in need.

But some commenters argued there's no room for more immigrants in the United States and voiced skepticism about the story.

"Rescue? That was a built boat not a life raft," one response read.

"Is it really a rescue," another commenter posted, "if people intentionally put themselves in a situation that needs rescuing?"

McCue didn't directly address that criticism, but five days later, she shared video of another rescue. This time, a sailboat carrying four passengers was spotted in distress.

In her video about the January 7 rescue, which has also been viewed millions of times, McCue said two women and two men were safely brought aboard and the cruise was back underway about 30 minutes after the initial sighting of their boat.

"They had been at sea for 10 days," she said, "the last 5 days without food."

Once again, McCue praised her crew's efforts, calling them "beyond amazing."

"Safety of life at sea is a simple concept for seafarers," she said. "Those in need, we assist."

Online posts reveal dramatically different realities

The Celebrity cruise ship's captain isn't the only one to post online about her experience crossing paths with migrants in distress.

The captain of Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady also offered his followers a glimpse of a December 31 rescue as his ship crossed the Straits of Florida.

"I had to stop with my beautiful Scarlet Lady, embark and assist 38 persons desperately looking for a new life, exactly on the new year eve," Captain Giovanni Schiaffino wrote on Instagram. "I will never forget the eyes of those children to whom I brought some small gifts, and various chocolates ... Thanks for making me understand the importance of life and the little things that make the difference on it."

The post included photos of migrants receiving food and medical screenings once onboard. They're sitting in a notably less glamorous part of the cruise ship, in an area with exposed pipes, fluorescent lights and a scratched linoleum floor. But they're wearing the cruise's official bath robes, with the words "Rock Star" embroidered in red on their backs.

While in the past we may have heard about the outcome of a cruise ship crossing paths with migrants in distress, social media posts like this are giving us a much clearer window into what things look like on board, both for those who've been rescued and for passengers whose luxury voyages have been interrupted.

Descriptions of rescue attempts are also popping up on message boards where passengers share their cruise experiences.

One recent thread on a Cruise Critic message board briefly details an attempt by another Virgin cruise ship to rescue a makeshift boat that at first appeared to be taking on water. "After investigating, the Captain reported that the small boat was not taking on water and the migrants refused assistance other than food and water and would not come aboard," the post notes. The next post from the same author details the lunch and desserts he ate while watching the attempted rescue.

One of Howard's many social media posts from aboard the Beyond shows the cruise director standing under a spotlight near a grand piano onstage, where he usually announced activities or introduced entertainment acts during the eight-day cruise. This time, he's giving passengers an update on the recent rescue operation.

"Nineteen people were safely rescued. ... We will now be taking them off with us to Fort Lauderdale. And they will disembark there. The authorities, of course, will look after them from there. But they are being fed ... they are all healthy. They had been stranded at sea for five days," he says, drawing applause from the crowd.

"And I don't know if you managed to see the boat they were in. It was a homemade boat made of polystyrene, metal sheeting and -- quite frankly -- it probably would not have lasted much longer in the water, especially not overnight. But five days they'd been out there. So we are incredibly grateful. ... It is a beautiful way to start the new year."

Meanwhile, Cubans searching for loved ones they fear have been lost at sea are also taking to social media. In numerous Facebook groups, word of the cruise rescues have prompted prayers and expressions of gratitude.

But they're far outnumbered by posts from people trying to find missing family members and worrying about their fates.

migrants packed into a small boat on the oceanCourtesy Kester Howard

What happens after migrants are taken aboard cruise ships

Several cruise lines involved in recent migrant rescues provided general statements to CNN, but declined interview requests and did not respond to questions about how frequently such rescues occur, or company policies about how to handle them.

"In keeping with maritime international law, the ship's crew immediately launched a rescue operation, safely bringing 19 people and then 4 people onboard," Celebrity said in a statement on Beyond's recent rescues. "We are grateful for our crew's quick action, and the lives saved as a result."

Carnival spokesman Matt Lupoli said in an email that the cruise line doesn't keep records on the frequency of rescues. "It is customary for cruise ships, and all mariners, to stop and rescue anyone spotted in distress at sea," he said.

Virgin Voyages says its fleet is prepared to help if they encounter vessels in distress.

"It is our responsibility to respond and offer assistance to those in need, and our Crew are trained for this and ready to help. This often includes bringing these individuals on board, offering clothing, food, water and medical treatment if needed," Virgin Voyages said in a statement. "We also work closely with designated authorities to support a safe transfer from the ship. When we encounter these scenarios, our priority is making sure everyone is safe and taken care of."

Rosen, the University of Miami law professor, says maritime law is clear about what should happen when boats encounter vessels in distress.

"Maritime law requires the ship to render assistance to anybody in danger or in distress at sea, as long as they can do it without serious danger to themselves, their crew or their passengers," he says.

What happens next can be murky, varying depending on cruise company policies and where the rescues occurred.

Of the six recent rescues reported in the region, four of the cruise ships went on to transfer the migrants to a US Coast Guard cutter. And most of those migrants have already been repatriated to Cuba, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Beal says.

Both recent groups of migrants rescued by the Beyond were taken to Port Everglades, Florida, and transferred to US Customs and Border Protection custody.

A CBP spokesperson says they've all since been paroled into the United States to await court dates before an immigration judge.

"Ultimately, whether the migrants are transferred to USCG at sea or CBP ashore, they are provided food, water, shelter, basic first aid and processed to determine their identity, nationality, criminal history, and if they have a legal basis to remain in the US," Beal says.

Those who don't have a legal basis to be in the United States will be processed for removal or repatriation, he says.

The recent series of cruise ship encounters happened the same week that authorities announced that an influx of Cuban migrants in the Florida Keys had temporarily forced them to close Dry Tortugas National Park. The park reopened this week, on the same day that the Coast Guard repatriated 273 Cuban migrants after interceptions at sea.

The Florida Straits have a long history as a corridor for illegal migration attempts. And many commercial vessels travel those same waters.

Last year CNN reported that the US and Cuba were dealing with the highest number of Cuban migrants to leave the island by boat since 2017, when then-President Obama in the final days of his presidency did away with the "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy that allowed Cubans who reached the US to stay in the country.

"If there are more migrant vessels," Beal says, "there's a greater likelihood cruise ships will see them while they're out at sea."

selfie of white woman on a cruiseCourtesy Kester Howard

She hopes others will see the same thing she did that day

On the last night of her cruise on the Beyond, Kester Howard found herself fielding questions from friends on social media about what she'd just seen.

A week later Howard's voice still cracks with emotion as she describes what she watched that day. In the makeshift boat below, desperate migrants cried out, "Help me! Please!" From nearby cruise ship balconies, Howard says fellow-passengers shouted, too. "We're coming!" someone yelled. "We love you!"

Many times, she says, it seemed like the small, overloaded vessel and its passengers weren't going to survive the rescue attempt.

"It really looked like they were going to get sucked under the ship," she says.

She says she shared videos of what happened, and wants to speak out about the experience, because it's important for others to see the same reality she did that day.

"To see it in real life, and to realize how many people must be doing this -- and I don't just mean in that area, but worldwide -- in a day, or in a year," Howard says.

It's the kind of journey no one takes lightly, she says.

"You have to have a lot of guts to do that. You wouldn't go into that not being terrified. For me, that's the point, that they're just so desperate to make such a decision and take such a risk and not know that it's going to work, or if they're even going to live," she says.

She hopes others will respond the way she heard many of her fellow cruise passengers reacting that day -- with empathy rather than fear.

But Howard acknowledges even on the cruise ship not everyone was won over by the migrants' story. One dismayed fellow passenger told her they were surprised the ship had stopped to pick up the migrants. They turned away from the ongoing rescue, Howard says, to head to a pub onboard the ship.

On Facebook, Howard said she was watching strong winds whip across the cruise ship's promenades, looking out at the dark waters, and thinking about what a close call it must have been.

"It was just before nightfall. If it had been even an hour later...they probably would have died," she says.

Howard took comfort knowing that those 19 people were safe somewhere aboard the ship. She hoped they'd have a chance to reach their destination and begin the new lives they were seeking. But another thought crossed her mind, too, and she shared it on Facebook.

"I honestly don't know how they spotted them," she wrote. "Makes me wonder how many others are out there tonight and how many drown at sea."

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