Cruise Talk Comments on Carnival Splendor “Disaster” Cruise

Now that the Carnival Splendor has returned all of her passengers and crew safely to San Diego, I felt is was appropriate for Cruise Talk to offer some commentary regarding the Carnival Splendor fire, subsequent powers loss, and stranding off the coast of Mexico.

As a frequent cruiser who has never experienced something like this on any of my cruises it is hard to know where to start. The closest experience I had to this was a small electrical fire in the beauty salon of the Statendam in 1980. Only a few rooms were temporarily evacuated, and there was no disruption at all to guests who were not in those few rooms. In my reflections on this new disaster, I will discuss from my perspective the “good”, the “bad” and “What we can learn.”


Was it a disaster, inconvenience, or some where in between? One of the reasons I call this event a “disaster”, but use quotes around that word is that while far worse than an inconvenience, no one was killed or from what we know so far, seriously injured. Also, the ship did not sink or even take on water.

By comparison, a recent Celebrity cruise had to be interrupted two days into the cruise due to rudder damage. The passengers on that ship had several days in a fully powered ship to work with the cruise line or their travel agent to make other arrangements to return to the starting port in Barcelona. This was more of an inconvenience to those Celebrity passengers. In comparison to that experience, this cruise was a disaster.

However, in comparison to other infamous at sea disasters, this one had a positive outcome. In the Titantic, which occurred a century ago, over 1500 people lost their lives. In the more recent disaster, the sinking of the Sea Diamond in Santorini, two french citizens lost their lives. In the fire on the Star Princess in 2006, one man had a heart attack and died during the panic and confusion. Fortunately for this incident, there was no loss of life.

The other good outcome of this disaster is that the passengers were returned to San Diego rather than Ensenda. By bringing the ship back to the United States, the transfer of passengers back to the originating location of Long Beach/Los Angeles was much easier:no international border to cross, and easy for passengers to make individual arrangements for friends or family to pick them up at the port in San Diego. The other “good” part of this “disaster” was that compared to devastating disasters like the Haitian Earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, this was really more like a rustic camping trip rather than epic disaster. Granted, not the vacation that everyone was expecting, but not an epic disaster either.

Perhaps the word “Spamcation” seen on T-shirts exclaiming “I Survived the Carnival Splendor Spamcation” sum up the experience best, even though (see below) passengers were never served the now infamous Spam that was delivered to the stranded ship.

Carnival is providing a full refund plus another free cruise of equal value to all passengers.


Besides the obvious of being stranded in the middle of the ocean with out power or electricity, there were several other bad things that went on after the fire.

First, the toilets and water were not working. Toilets and water on a cruise ship work on pressurized system that is dependent on ship’s power. This was probably one of the first priorities on the ship and after about 12 hours they were able to restore cold water and toilets. You can imagine the stench as un-flushable toilets filled up.

Lack of power was especially an issue for passengers who had inside cabins with no windows. First, the inside cabins had no lights. One passenger reported that he used his cell phone as a flash light when he was in his inside cabin, and with out that he could not see his hand in front of his face. There was no air conditioning, however for passenger with out side cabins this may not have been a huge issue as the area where they were stranded is usually cool and breezy during this time of year. I heard speculation that passengers with inside cabins may have chosen to sleep in lounge chairs on deck or with their cabin door propped open.

There also seemed to be a lack of good communication on board the ship. One passenger on the ship reported that they had been told the problem was due to a “flameless” fire. Passengers report that they were not informed until late Tuesday of the extent of the damage to the ship. Another area where communication was sketchy was in informing friends and family when and where they could meet their loved ones. A man on TV reported he was in San Diego to pick up his son, but he only found out he could do so when his son was able to call in from the ship early in morning of its arrival when it got back into cell phone range. The man had been in touch with Carnvial customer service via phone, but could not get the proper information.

Additionally, it does seem ironic on a cruise ship, but food and water were also an issue. While the ship had plenty of food on board, the crew had no way to cook it with the power out. They improvised as much as possible from the ship’s provisions, but as a precaution, had the military bring in emergency provisions in form of foods like Spam and Pop-Tarts. Since the passengers have returned, we have now learned that those provisions were never served to passengers. However, cruisers who were expecting 15 meals a day and endless buffets of gourmet food were now standing in 2 hour lines to get rations of things like cucumber and salami sandwiches. Not exactly a dream vacation, but more like a disaster relief effort.

Finally, the issue of lost vacation time may be what is most upsetting. Passengers who only have a few weeks of vacation a year have now used much of this time on a bad vacation rather than a dream vacation. While they can take another cruise for free, they may not be able to find another block of vacation time for months or even years. I suspect that frequent Carnival cruisers will jump the opportunity to take a free cruise, but those passengers for whom this was their first cruise experience may just say “no thanks” to the offer of a free cruise.

What We Can Learn

I will still continue to choose a cruise as my preferred vacation experience, but I’ve decided that I may include a little emergency disaster bag inside my suit case. While the cruise ships have what is required should passengers have to abandon ship, I think it might be a good idea to just include a pack of meal replacement bars and a flash light. This might help to avoid the need to stand in long lines should something like this incident occur. I think I might try to have some sort of back up power for my cell phone, and if not make sure it always have full charge. For me, the issue of loss of vacation time is not as problematic, but I would be sure to discuss the issue of a canceled or problematic cruises with any friends who might be considering their first cruise vacation.

Hopefully, Carnival will learn some lessons such as having emergency power and plumbing more easily brought back on line. Some cruise lines are installing solar panels as a means of emergency and back-up power, so this may be a technology for Carnival to pursue. I would also hope that they are looking at the processes and procedures for feeding passengers when the power is out. Hopefully, they could take this opportunity to develop a more efficient way of distributing food when the restaurants cannot be opened. More effective emergency communications might also be an area that can be improved based on the experiences aboard the ship. Finally, as one of their first priorities, I hope they discover the cause of the fire and to take immediate corrective action.

Editor’s Note: After reading John Healds blog, it does seem that Carnival did have pretty effective emergency communications in the form of the crew’s walkie talkie system and the ships intercom. While there does seem to be some area for improvement in the lade based communications with loved ones, it does seem that the emergency communications on board were fairly extensive.

Let us know what you think

Whether you were a passenger on Splendor or a concerned past or future traveler, let us know what’s on your mind. Is my commentary way off or is there an important detail we haven’t yet heard about? Please share with us your thoughts on the “Spamcation.”