A group of migrants was rescued near Cuba by a cruise ship
Celebrity Beyond's grand plaza is seen on November 4, 2022, the day of the cruise ship's official christening. Gymnast Simone Biles presided over the ceremony as "godmother" to the ship.
A luxury cruise ship took its passengers to a place they never expected to see: the reality of the immigration crisis.
Kester Howard was painting on the balcony of a luxury liner when a startling announcement came over the loudspeakers. A nearby ship seemed to be in danger, and the captain would turn to catch up with them.
Howard, a retiree from Brisbane, Australia, grabbed her phone to record what was happening. She had been on many cruises before, but this was something she had never seen.
Gradually, a white craft in the distance came into focus and a rescue operation began.
“Look how that ship was put together. Those poor people,” Howard said as he recorded and narrated from the balcony of his stateroom as the cruise ship maneuvered to bring them aboard. “You see it on TV; You never imagine seeing it in real life.”
Days earlier, passengers on the Celebrity Beyond had ringed in the new year with a dazzling party, waving glow sticks as they counted down to 2023. The ship boasts "unlimited views," onboard butlers and "rooms so luxurious you won't want to close the eyes". It was built to hold more than 3,200 passengers.
The makeshift boat that bobbed in the wake of the massive cruise ship on January 2 is different in almost every possible way.
There was no name to be seen on his helmet. It seemed to be cobbled together with metal and Styrofoam. Nineteen people were crammed inside, shoulder to shoulder, yelling for help.
The rescue took more than an hour to execute that day, as cruise ship passengers anxiously watched and awaited updates from the captain.
“We definitely came face to face with the reality of this situation,” said Steven Glassman, who took photos of the rescue from one of the ship's upper decks.
Glassman is a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner and is acutely aware of the growing number of makeshift vessels washing up on Florida shores. But seeing a rescue at sea brought the situation even closer to home. And at dinner that night, he said, many of the cruise passengers were talking about what they had witnessed.
“It makes you realize how lucky we are,” he said. “Here we are, sitting in a beautiful dining room on a beautiful ship and getting ready to eat a magnificent dinner, and we just watch people who had to be rescued. That is the harsh reality."
Howard, Glassman y miles de otros pasajeros a bordo del Celebrity Beyond no fueron los únicos que se enfrentaron a esa realidad. Las vistas del dramático rescate se vieron en todo el mundo después de que la capitana del barco compartiera imágenes al día siguiente con sus 3,7 millones de seguidores combinados en TikTok e Instagram.
It is not new for cruise ships traveling through the Florida Straits, as the Celebrity Beyond did that day, to encounter ships of Cuban immigrants. But a series of recent rescues and social media posts about them have brought a new wave of attention to these dramatic moments at sea and the migration crisis behind them.
"The number of migrants traveling in makeshift boats is increasing."
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 bailouts "amazing" but also says there's a logical reason behind it.
“The number of cruise ships has increased dramatically over the last decade. Not only are they bigger, there are more of them,” he says.
He combines that with an increasing number of migrants leaving Cuba on makeshift boats, traveling the same waters they are trying to reach the United States, and it's a trend Rosen says is likely to intensify.
Celebrity Beyond leaves western France in April 2022. The ship's maiden voyage was a Western Europe cruise that set sail that same month.
A migrant boat is seen from the upper deck of the Celebrity Beyond cruise ship.
However, it is difficult to determine precisely if cruise ships are passing migrant ships in distress more frequently.
The US Coast Guard says it does not track that data and notes that other commercial vessels in the region have also helped with migrant rescues.
Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a review site and online cruise community, says the phenomenon has been going on for years.
“It's certainly been in the headlines lately. It's not new or even totally uncommon,” she says. "I know many, many people who have been on a boat and say, 'This happened to me.'"
Whether these bailouts are happening more frequently or not, social media seems to be changing the way we view them.
Images of a cruise ship captain offer a different perspective
For centuries, humans have recounted stories of seafarers in peril.
In some ways, the story of the Celebrity Beyond and the migrant boat it saved is another take on this ancient tale, but with a decidedly digital twist.
Captain Kate McCue, who has millions of followers on TikTok and hundreds of thousands more on Instagram, shared a video of the rescue and what happened afterward, thanking her crew for going into action and saving lives.
In the flurry of responses that followed, McCue, already popular online for being the first American cruise ship captain and for sharing entertaining videos of day-to-day life on board, received praise from many for taking the time to help. to those in need.
But some commentators argued that there is no place for more immigrants in the United States and expressed skepticism about the story.
"Rescue? That was a built boat, not a life raft," read one reply.
"Is it really a rescue," another commenter posted, "if people intentionally put themselves in a situation that needs to be rescued?"
McCue didn't directly address that criticism, but five days later, she shared video of another rescue. This time, a sailboat with four passengers that was seen in distress.
In his January 7 rescue video, which has also been viewed millions of times, McCue said two women and two men were safely brought aboard and the cruise ship started up again about 30 minutes after the sighting. initial of your ship.
“They had been at sea for 10 days,” she said, “the last 5 days without food.”
Once again, McCue praised her team's efforts, calling them "beyond amazing."
“Safety of life at sea is a simple concept for seafarers,” she said. "Those in need, we help them."
Online posts reveal dramatically different realities
The Celebrity cruise captain isn't the only one posting online about her experience coming across migrants in distress.
The captain of Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady also offered his supporters a glimpse of a rescue on Dec. 31 as his ship crossed the Florida Straits.
“I had to stop with my beautiful Scarlet Lady, board and help 38 people who were desperately looking for a new life, exactly on new year's eve,” Capt. Giovanni Schiaffino wrote on Instagram. "I will never forget the eyes of those children to whom I brought some gifts and several chocolates... Thank you for making me understand the importance of life and the little things that make a difference in it."
The post included photos of migrants receiving food and medical exams once on board. They're sitting in a noticeably less glamorous part of the cruise ship, in an area with exposed pipes, fluorescent lighting, and a scratchy linoleum floor. But they do wear the official cruise ship bathrobes, with the words "Rock Star" embroidered in red on the back.
While we may have heard about the outcome of a cruise ship coming across migrants in distress in the past, social media posts like this give us a much clearer window into what things are looking like on board, both for those who have been rescued and for passengers whose luxury journeys have been interrupted.
Descriptions of the rescue attempts are also appearing in online communities where passengers share their cruise experiences.
A recent thread on a Cruise Critic forum briefly details another Virgin cruise ship's attempt to salvage a makeshift dinghy that at first appeared to be filling with water. “After investigating, the Captain reported that the small boat was not filling with water and that the migrants refused to receive assistance other than food and water and did not want to come on board,” the publication states. The following post by the same author details the lunch and desserts he ate while observing the rescue attempt.
One of Howard's many social media posts aboard the Beyond shows the cruise director standing under a spotlight near a grand piano on stage, where he typically announced activities or hosted entertainment acts during the eight-day cruise. This time, he is giving the passengers an update on the recent rescue operation.
“Nineteen people were safely rescued… We will now take them with us to Fort Lauderdale. And they will land there. The authorities, of course, will take care of 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 they managed to see the boat they were on. It was a homemade boat made of Styrofoam, sheet metal, and—frankly—probably wouldn't have lasted much longer on the water, especially not overnight. But five days they had been there. So we're incredibly grateful… It's a beautiful way to start the new year.”
Meanwhile, Cubans searching for loved ones they fear have been lost at sea are also turning to social media. In numerous Facebook groups, news of the cruise ship rescues has sparked prayers and expressions of gratitude.
But they are outnumbered by posts from people trying to find missing family members and worrying about their fate.
What Happens After Migrants Are Taken Aboard Cruise Ships
Several cruise companies involved in recent migrant rescues provided general statements to CNN, but declined interview requests and did not respond to questions about how often such rescues occur or the company's policies on handling them.
"In accordance with international maritime law, the ship's crew immediately launched a rescue operation, safely bringing 19 people and then 4 people on board," Celebrity said in a statement about the recent Beyond rescues. "We are grateful for the quick action by our crew and the lives saved as a result."
This Coast Guard handout photo shows the interception of a migrant boat about 20 miles south of Key West, Florida, on December 20, 2022. The migrants were repatriated to Cuba two days later.
Carnival spokesman Matt Lupoli said in an email that the cruise line does not keep records on the frequency of rescues. “It is customary for cruise ships, and all sailors, to stop and rescue anyone seen in distress at sea,” he said.
Virgin Voyages says its fleet is ready to help if they come across vessels in distress.
“It is our responsibility to respond and offer assistance to those who need it, and our crew is trained for this and ready to help. This often includes bringing these people on board, offering them clothing, food, water and medical treatment if necessary," Virgin Voyages said in a statement. “We also work closely with the designated authorities to make a safe transfer from the ship. When we encounter these scenarios, our priority is to make sure everyone is safe and cared for."
Rosen, a University of Miami law professor, says maritime law is clear about what must happen when ships encounter vessels in distress.
“The ship is required by maritime law to render assistance to any person in distress or distress at sea, provided it can do so without serious danger to itself, its crew or its passengers,” he says.
What happens next can be murky, as it varies depending on the cruise company's policies and where the rescues occurred.
Of the six recent rescues reported in the region, four of the cruise ships transferred the migrants to a US Coast Guard ship. And most of those migrants have already been repatriated to Cuba, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Coastal, John Beal.
Both groups of migrants who were recently rescued by Beyond were taken to Port Everglades, Florida, and transferred to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.
A CBP spokesperson says they have all since been paroled into the United States to await court dates before an immigration judge.
“Ultimately, whether migrants are transferred to USCG at sea or CBP on land, they are provided with food, water, shelter, basic first aid, and are processed to determine their identity, nationality, criminal history, and whether they have a legal basis to remain in the United States,” says Beal.
Those who do not have a legal basis for being in the United States will be processed for removal or repatriation, he says.
The recent series of cruise ship encounters occurred the same week authorities announced that an influx of Cuban immigrants in the Florida Keys had forced them to temporarily close Dry Tortugas National Park. The park reopened this week, the same day the Coast Guard repatriated 273 Cuban migrants after interceptions at sea.
The Florida Straits have a long history as a corridor for attempted illegal migration. And many commercial ships travel through those same waters.
Last year, CNN reported that the US and Cuba were dealing with the largest number of Cuban immigrants leaving the island by boat since 2017, when then-President Obama in the final days of his presidency scrapped the "wet foot, dry foot" that allowed Cubans who arrived in the US to remain in the country.
“If there are more migrant boats,” says Beal, “there is a greater chance that cruise ships will see them while they are at sea.”
She hopes others see the same thing that happened to her that day.
On the last night of her cruise, Kester Howard found herself answering questions from friends on social media about what she had just seen.
A week later, Howard's voice still cracks as she describes what she saw that day. Below, in the makeshift boat, desperate migrants were shouting: “Help me! Please!" From the balconies of nearby cruise ships, Howard says passengers also yelled. "We're almost there!" someone yelled. "We love you!"
Many times, he says, it seemed that the overloaded small craft and its passengers were not going to survive the rescue attempt.
“It really looked like they were going to be sucked into the ship,” he says.
She says that she shared videos of what happened and wants to talk about the experience, because it is important that others see the same reality that she saw that day.
“Seeing it in real life and realizing how many people must be doing this, and I don't mean just in that area, but in the whole world, in a day or in a year,” Howard says.
It's the kind of trip no one takes lightly, she said.
“You have to have a lot of guts to do that. You wouldn't do that without being terrified. To me, that's the point, that they're so desperate to make such a decision and take such a risk and they don't know if it's going to work, or if they're going to live,” he says.
She hopes others will respond the way she heard many of her fellow cruisers react that day: with empathy rather than fear.
However, Howard acknowledges that even on the cruise, not everyone was sold on the migrant story. A shocked fellow traveler told him they were surprised the boat had stopped to pick up the migrants. They walked away from the ongoing rescue, Howard says, to a bar aboard the ship.
On Facebook, Howard said he watched the strong winds whipping against the cruise ship, looked at the dark waters and thought about how close it must have been.
“It was just before dark. If it had been even an hour later…they probably would have died,” he said.
Howard took comfort in the knowledge that those 19 people were safe somewhere aboard the ship. He hoped they would have a chance to reach their destination and start the new life they were looking for. But another thought also crossed his mind and he shared it on Facebook.
"Honestly, I don't know how they saw them," he wrote. "It makes me wonder how many more are out there tonight and how many are drowning in the sea."
Kester Howard poses for a photo aboard Celebrity Beyond. Courtesy of Kester Howard
by Catherine E. ShoichetCNN