What’s It Like To Live In An Empty Cruise Ship During The Pandemic?


  • For the cruise liner industry, the COVID-19 pandemic officially began on March 14.
  • Now, six months later, and despite staging a few unsuccessful comebacks, the cruise industry remains in deep freeze. 
  • One such ship is the Ovation of the Seas, which is the largest cruise ship based in the Southern Hemisphere. 
  • It’s currently moored in Singapore, along with dozens of others. 

VICE News spoke to a member of the ship’s skeleton crew, employed to maintain the vessel’s extensive audio visual system.

Cruise industry on hold

VICE: Can you tell us about your role?

Matt: Right now, I’m the permanent head video technician on Ovation of the Seas. It’s a Quantum-class ship owned by Royal Caribbean International. 

When the ship is in service, we have about 4,500 guests and 1,500 crew members but at the moment, we have just 99 crew members. 

Tell us about where you are at the moment.

I’m offshore of Singapore in what I can only describe as the biggest ship parking lot I’ve ever seen. 

My contract is through February of next year and I’m not sure if I’ll touch dry land before then. As of now, we’ve been told not to expect that.

How does it feel to be on an almost empty cruise liner?

It’s surreal. This ship was built to host thousands of people and I’ve spent years on this ship experiencing it as it was designed. 

But walking around now, the ship feels lifeless and empty. It’s in stasis waiting for the world to sort itself out so it can go back to what it’s designed to do. 

Everything is shut down, lights are off, furniture is covered up. It’s a ghost ship.

What do you do everyday? Is there enough work to keep you busy or do you get bored?

I’m not really ever bored. My department usually has about 150 people but now it’s just me to deal with all the paperwork and inspections. 

It’s an overwhelming amount of work keeping the ship in the kind of condition it needs to stay in so it can go back into service. Plus, since there is very little to do socially the work basically takes all my time. 

I’ve been here over a month and it feels like I just got here.

Do you interact with other people or is everyone pretty isolated?

My job is typically pretty solitary, so I usually don’t see a lot of people even when things are normal. Right now though I only see people at breakfast, lunch and dinner; I rarely see anyone outside of those times. It’s absolutely a ghost ship. It’s definitely a new way of living.

The world in general is experiencing a pretty big mental health fallout from the pandemic. What are you doing to look after yourself on an empty ship?

We’re all lucky here because we all still have our jobs. We have that to keep us focused and distracted from depression. 

Travel for crew is opening up and anyone who wants to go home pretty much can. As far as keeping healthy, I go to the gym, run laps on the track, and play basketball. 

The company has also provided resources for crew members who need to talk about mental health issues and, honestly, the onboard family we have right now is extremely supportive. 

When ships are in service the hierarchy can be pretty rigid, but everyone is now in this together. Everyone is an equal.

COVID-19 has had a pretty drastic impact on the cruise industry. Tell me how that’s played out for you.

Yeah, it’s changed the world. It’s affected everyone. The cruise industry has been massively affected by this but my company is really strong financially and our guests are loyal. 

They’ve been booking cruises years in advance and they’re all expecting us to come back.

Is there a sense of worry among your colleagues about job stability?

Yes, and especially my colleagues in the entertainment department. The company will inevitably have to make cuts somewhere and the cruising demographic will also change because of what’s happened. 

Older people won’t cruise as much until there’s a level of safety that can guarantee their health, so the entertainment will shift to match the younger demographic. 

This means different styles of shows, less big bands and smaller, more dynamic forms of entertainment. 

This was already taking place, but COVID-19 will accelerate that shift to a more modern product.

Do you expect the cruise industry to recover?

Yes. The people who cruise love it. It’s a community, a lifestyle and a passion. 

I do think this will change the face of cruising and of travel and tourism in general, but I think some good will come out of it. 

Things will be different, but life always goes on.

Has anybody on your ship or anyone you know contracted COVID?

When the virus was first spreading there was a group of guests who got it. The day I got off the ship 74 guests onboard tested positive for it. 

No crew onboard ever contracted it and we’ve been a clean ship ever since. 

We’re very careful when receiving supplies, we wear masks onboard and we practice physical distancing. 

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