Synergy: Norovirus will allow you to poop and puke on ecological communities more effectively!

Have you ever taken a vacation on a cruise ship?


I’m just curious because these things have negative appeal to me. Going out on a floating hotel to circle around in the water, spewing sewage into the ocean, descending en masse on tourist traps, confined to a totally artificial environment surrounded by people with more money than sense? Eww. I really don’t get it, but these abominations are monstrously profitable.

And then…these are basically glamorous plague ships. To be fair, Tara does nod to an explanation for why people like them, but the negatives loom too large in my mind.

I know plenty of people love cruises. The convenience of seeing a variety of places without having to plan them individually; the all-inclusive meals; the variety of entertainment options; and for those with kids, the special activities provided for youngsters. I get it. But as an individual trained in microbiology and infectious diseases, what I see when contemplating such an excursion is the potential to be trapped with thousands of others in a confined space, suffering from gastrointestinal aliments like norovirus and E. coli, respiratory infections including influenza and chickenpox, or, as a recent Scientology cruise demonstrated, measles. And that just doesn’t sound like a fun vacation to me.

This hardly a secret: Just this week it was reported that inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave the Carnival ship “Fantasy” one of the company’s worst ever sanitation inspection reports. (The Carnival Corporation & plc made close to $19 billion in full revenues in 2018.)

Read the rest to learn more about norovirus than you ever wanted! She doesn’t even get into the environmental catastrophe that is a cruise ship.


  1. PaulBC says

    I can’t picture myself going on a cruise ship, but it seems like the idea is to go to an extended party that moves around and makes some fun stops (like Puerto Vallarta in The Love Boat). I don’t see anything hard to understand about finding amusement in that. It sounds better than staying at a resort in a fixed location for the same length of time. But yeah, the norovirus is a definitely a downside, and I am less tolerant of crowds and confinement than most people I know.

    In the rare instances when I take a vacations, I prefer to go to real places where non-vacationing people live, but I have nothing against cruise ships per se.

  2. beer says

    FWIW, I’ve been digging around a bit looking for stories about cruise ships dumping sewage all over the place, and there really isn’t much out there that I can find. One story from 2014 that keeps getting passed around usually mentions sewage in the article titles but actually discusses greywater. One startling picture is actually silt/mud being stirred up my maneuvering thrusters.

    Although I did find that US laws says ships can dump untreated sewage beyond 3-miles off shore, I’m not seeing many (any?) stories of cruise ships routinely dumping sewage.

  3. hemidactylus says

    The only cruise I went on was greatly unappealing. Thank goodness they had a bar. Walking down a hall of wafting sewage smells I came to the conclusion that a cruise ship is a ginormous portable toilet floating on its side decked out with sleeping, eating and entertainment accommodations.

  4. Bruce Fuentes says

    My wife and I have been on 3 cruises. 2 were 15+ years ago and I thought the ships were big then. We went again 2 years ago and they are monstrosities now. We will never again. The reason we did years ago was price. Inexpensive tropical vacation. Last time because we have friends that will only cruise or go to all inclusive in Jamaica. All inclusive are marginally better. But I want to hang out with a group of people from MN and WI I will stay home.
    The best vacation I know of now is renting homes or condos in Puerto Rico through VRBO. For a group of 6 or more, it can cost less than a resort or cruise. Plus you get privacy and to actually be in the community. We cook and go to restaurants and clean up after ourselves. Drawbacks for some people on vacation I know.

  5. jrkrideau says

    I did a four day cruise up the Nile once and it was lovely. While other tourists were being stuffed into buses we were sitting on the upper deck having tea and cakes and waving at the kids on the banks of the Nile.

    Thank heavens that that I have never ended up on a tourist ship.

  6. blf says

    Barcelona (Spain) and Marseille (France) both have continuing problems with pollution from curse ships; for example: Barcelona port is worst in Europe for cruise ship air pollution (“City tops list of 50 European ports for both sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions”), and Cruise ship captain fined €100,000 for using dirty fuel (“The captain of a cruise ship found to be burning fuel with excessive sulphur levels has been fined €100,000 [in Marseille …]”).

    More generally, Carnival reportedly dumped over 500,000 gallons of sewage and 11,000 gallons of food waste improperly in the year after it admitted to illegally releasing oil into the ocean:

    ● A report from an environmental-compliance inspector says Carnival Corp. violated environmental laws in the first year after it reached a $40 million settlement for improper waste disposal.
    ● The inspector found over 800 violations of Carnival’s five-year probation between April 2017 and April&nbs;2018, though the violations were accidental and disclosed by Carnival, the Miami Herald reported.
    ● The report complimented Carnival’s efforts to meet the terms of the 2017 settlement, saying the company had fixed the issues that led to the settlement.
    ● But the report also criticized the company’s culture, internal investigations, and failure to give the inspector enough authority to ensure compliance with the settlement.

    And, The case against cruises:

    […] Ships can also be dangerous, with high sexual assault rates, frequent poisonings, and the ever-present possibility of going overboard. And, of course, cruises are horrible for the environment: Their heavy and growing use of fossil fuels means someone on a seven-day cruise produces the same amount of emissions as they would during 18 days on land. And they can damage fragile ocean ecosystems, due to practices like irresponsible disposal of sewage.

    ● Cruises are regimented and creepy […]

    ● Crime is rampant on cruises […]

    ● Cruises shake down local economies — and their own workers […] Crew members are known to be overworked […] because cruise ships are not beholden to US labor laws. According to Cruise Law News, crew members could work 10 to 12 hours a day for up to 10 months of the year. “If you’re a cleaner on the Grandeur of the Seas, there are 35 public bathrooms,” [Canadian academic Ross Klein] says. “You’re making about $560 a month and you may have an assistant, you may not.”


    By registering their companies in foreign countries, cruise lines are able to dodge not only corporate income tax but reasonable labor laws. Royal Caribbean is incorporated in Liberia, where the minimum wage is $4 to $6 per day, Carnival in Panama, where the minimum wage ranges from $1.22 to $2.36 per hour, and Norwegian in Bermuda, where there is currently no minimum wage [Nov 2018 …].

    “Carnival will earn $3 billion and they’ll pay no corporate income tax at all,” Klein says. “That’s $3 billion net profit. Why would they would they want pay their workers a little extra money and make only $2.9 or $2.8 billion?”


    ● Cruises dump fuel and human waste into the ocean […]

    Fortunately, the Mediterranean seaside village where I live is too small to accommodate curse ships. However that doesn’t mean the zillionaire superyecks which do arrive are necessarily any better (just “smaller” so the “volume” is less, broadly speaking (there are exceptions for the better))…

  7. maryoswell says

    Have cruised 4 times, once on a larger ship (it was an Atlantic crossing as part of the family trip), and three times on a small (170 passengers max) ship. The crossing wasn’t my favorite, but we were happy to have time to spend together and the ship had many things for us to do (lectures, games, wine and food tastings, etc) to keep boredom at bay.
    The other cruises were on a sailing ship, and I loved them all. Two of the three trips were amidst islands, so sailing was a great way to see things without flying between islands. The small size allowed us into ports that the larger ships couldn’t navigate, so we rarely overwhelmed the places we visited. We were well feed, but didn’t have a 24/7 food orgy. The crew were great and very concerned about contagious diseases, so took hygiene very seriously. These cruises tend to cost more because of the size, but can make cruising an enjoyable experience.

  8. Snarki, child of Loki says

    You just have to everyone stay on the ship long enough for the diseases to burn themselves out…six months or so ought to do it.

    It’s the short cruises that cause problems.

    Worst evars? The ‘three hour cruise’.

  9. waydude says

    I went on one cruise, up to Alaska, while I really enjoyed seeing a Glacier calve into the ocean, the whole thing was a nightmare for me being confined to a place I can’t leave with just about the worst people in the word. Like having to live in a mall. NEver fucking again.

  10. Sean Boyd says

    I’ve long wanted to take the ferry from Bellingham, WA up to Skagway, AK and back. (That whole money thing keeps getting in the way.) But I don’t do well when I’m around lots of strangers and don’t have an easy way to depart their proximity. A Caribbean cruise would be orders of magnitude worse, I think.

  11. lumipuna says

    It’s the short cruises that cause problems.

    Worst evars? The ‘three hour cruise’.

    I was mildly amused recently when I noticed a Guardian article referring to the very popular Baltic Sea party cruises as “ferry trips”.

  12. anthrosciguy says

    And that’s why you’ve never seen PZ on a cruise, let’s say to the Galapagos, and especially not posting about how much he enjoyed it.

    Right? :)

  13. says

    I’ve been on a few cruises, including Carnival. Eh, they’re fine. Although part of the appeal was hanging out with relatives (like 20 or so of them). And the fact that the family was paying for it. Honestly, it’s much closer to the ideal vacation for me than some of the stuff my parents do, like go through the jungles of South America or whatever. I mean, I’m sure some people prefer the jungles, but then you can’t tell me that the problem with cruises is that there’s too much risk.

  14. garnetstar says

    As a fervent devotee of “Hell is other people”, I think that the ninth circle must be “Hell is being sick with 2000 other people.” The smaller, obviously, the better.

    But, with misgivngs, I’ve booked a week’s sailing trip this year on a ship that sleeps eleven others. I’m already worried about handling that, as that seems to me to be eleven too many. I’ll find out, perhaps the hard way.

    If they’re too much, I’ll just get seasick and stay that way. No one wants to speak to you when you’re throwing up for six straight hours, and that may be preferable to talking to them.

  15. Howard Brazee says

    I’ve read that one of the popular things is to have theme cruises with cooking classes or bridge classes or genre writers…

    How about a “spiders” cruise?

  16. microraptor says

    When I graduated high school my grandparents took me on a cruise around the North Sea. Started in Stockholm with Saint Petersburg as the primary destination, but we also went to Helsinki and Estonia.

    Seeing the cities was fun, but the cruise itself was not that interesting for someone who didn’t drink, didn’t gamble, and didn’t care about nightly entertainment that was aimed at retirees.

  17. PaulBC says

    Not really the same but, I was on an SF Bay cruise of several hours with coworkers some years back, and that was pretty fun. I also went whale watching on a fishing boat out of Monterey with family. Unfortunately half of us got seasick, but my son and I enjoyed it. We even saw a whale towards the end of it (not guaranteed).

  18. Ridana says

    #6 blf sez:

    The inspector found over 800 violations …, though the violations were accidental

    That’s one hell of a lot of accidents. o.o

  19. says

    The Galapagos trip was very different: a small (but luxurious) ship, and every day you got off the ship and went hiking. The ship wasn’t the point, although there were a few people who did just squat on deck and drink, drink, drink.

  20. PaulBC says

    PZ, I agree that your cruise was very different, but I still think saying “My cruise was different.” just isn’t a good look.

    Some people sincerely enjoy going on these cruises. You can make a strong case against both the environmental impact of large cruise ships as well as the risk of disease. I draw the line at criticizing the passengers for having poor taste. If this is something people enjoy, then let them enjoy it (aside from public health risks and externalities that may not be reflected in the cost).

  21. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    What’s so bad about E. coli…?
    I assume she’s talking about ETEC or EHEC or something like that, specifically.
    I like my regular-ass E. coli!

  22. anbheal says

    OK, I was a travel writer for about 15 years, and I rather liked riverboats. Not those Norwegian floating cities with 5000 pax and 30 bars and basketball courts and waterslides, but 175 people waking up on the Danube entering Budapest. Everybody knew each other by day 3. The captain knew your name. The bartender in the one bar knew your name. The pretty waitresses knew your name. Once you’re over 60, I totally get the appeal of traveling while you sleep, and only unpacking and packing once. And boy, I never paid for a single drink, when Agnes and Ruth and Edith were holding court at the bar!

  23. says

    I went on the 2012 “Not the End of the World” cruise to see Mayan ruins. The cruise featured anthropologists & other scientists, a couple of SF authors (Robert Sawyer and David Brin), and Fraser Cain & Dr. Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast, all giving talks and presentations on astronomy, the Maya, and various other topics. We visited the Mayan site at Coba on the Solstice and enjoyed the world not ending.

    Don’t think we would have done it if not for the scientists & related events, though.

  24. laurencocilova says

    My entire family-in-law is going on a cruise this month. I will hold off on sharing this until they get back and all of their insides are still where they belong… :-O That said, my mother and I definitely got norovirus (or cholera, or something miserable) when we were on vacation in St. Martin about a decade ago. It was very much not glamorous. It swept right through the resort in about two or three days. Hurk. Literally.

  25. magistramarla says

    PaulBC @18,
    Me too! We took a grandson on that Monterey whale watching tour about nine years ago, when he was 11 yrs old.
    We were very lucky. The captain got us very close to a pod of grey whales. We even got to see one dive and slap the water with his/her tail. The grandson was thrilled. On the way back, we were followed by a pod of dolphins. The grandson got to see a lot of the wildlife living in the Monterey Bay – sea otters, sea lions, and of course, lots of sea birds.
    I’ve been on a few of those trips, since the spouses’ club took the tour a few times while I was there. Luckily, I never got sick.
    We also took our son and his bride on that SF Bay cruise seven years ago, when they visited while on their honeymoon. As I taught my new daughter-in-law, you really have to dress warmly for that tour. It can get really cold on that lovely bay!
    We’ve just moved back to Monterey, and I can’t wait to take visiting friends and relatives on those short cruises. Someday, I hope to be brave enough to take a cruise on The Chardonnay sailboat out of Santa Cruz.
    I don’t think that I could ever stand to sail on one of those huge cruise ships. I would be way too bored. I prefer to fly into a new city, stay in a local hotel, and eat local foods. It’s more fun to sit in a park or square observing the locals and soaking up the culture than just cruising around with people who want to bring their own foods and culture with them.

  26. says

    Went on one cruise many years ago when our children were between 4 and 12 years old.

    The benefits were as described in the quoted article, as were the issues. The children did have a good time exploring the ship. No one got sick.

    I have no desire to repeat the exercise.

  27. blf says

    I don’t think that I could ever stand to sail on one of those huge cruise ships. I would be way too bored. I prefer to fly into a new city, stay in a local hotel, and eat local foods. It’s more fun to sit in a park or square observing the locals and soaking up the culture than just cruising around with people who want to bring their own foods and culture with them.

    Broadly the same with me, albeit substitute “train” for “fly” (plus a fair amount of simply wandering around (including in museums))… objection to flying is largely the environmental impact, plus the train is frequently more convenient at both departure and arrival (e.g., centre-to-centre). And, with a bit of planning or the appropriate pass (and something like Cook’s Timetable), journeys can be broken-up with interesting places more-or-less en route to visit.

  28. susans says

    I have been on two cruises. After my father died, I became my mother’s traveling companion. She sometimes traveled with a group organized by a friend who was a travel agent (that gives you an idea how long ago this was). The first cruise was to Alaska when the glaciers were much bigger and the group was all older and thirty-something Jews who were good companions. We did have a good time.

    For the second cruise, after my mother was too sick to go on a Tahitian cruise, she gave my husband her ticket and the two of us went. Even though I am a careful and consistent hand washer, I was stricken with a norovirus on the second day; I was very ill. The ship’s medical staff took good care of me without charge and my husband did not become sick.

    We have agreed to never go on another cruise. We were uncomfortable with being waited on all the time, we don’t eat a lot of rich food (I don’t eat a lot, period), we found the entertainment to be awful and we hated the fun, fun, fun. It’s a good thing we didn’t pay for it.

  29. garysturgess says

    My Dad has been on several cruises (with my Mum before she died, and with his girlfriend since); he seems to enjoy them (he’s in his mid 70s now; the earliest cruise would have been about 10 years ago). And I personally would love to go on the JoCo cruise one day, all else being equal. I’m perhaps a little less enthusiastic what with the information above, so I’ll certainly do my research first, but I am not sure I’d be willing to argue that they can’t be fun, at least.

  30. PaulBC says

    Is it possible to pick up norovirus just by reading about cruise ships? No lie. I won’t gross you out with the details.

  31. wzrd1 says

    @22, e. coli O157:H7. Kidney failure is not uncommon with shiga toxin producing e. coli.

    @26, around 3 days duration of controllable diarrhea, it’s norovirus. Around 3 days to 3 months of uncontrollable, incessant watery diarrhea, fever, dehydration, severe electrolyte loss, it’s likely cholera. Hint: for cholera, the litter/bed has a hole to allow the liquid pass into a literal bucket.
    See cholera once, live a lifetime trying to forget it!

    If I were to go on a cruise, I’d probably go on USNS Comfort or USNS Mercy. At least there, I’d have something to do that was useful, either medically or with electronic repair or computer repair.
    Although, I’d have some adjusting, I was Army, they’re Navy.

  32. says

    I have taken overnight ferries to avoid domestic air carriers, which usually have poorer safety records than international carriers. But locked in a cruise ship for up to a week? No thanks. You don’t need an advanced degree in epidemiology to know what one person with a cold, flu or other condition will do.

  33. Ice Swimmer says

    As blf pointed out, the cruise ships are also big air polluters, as they use the dirt-cheap sulphur-rich heavy fuel oil (basically oil-refining waste product that’s too thick and sticky for lubricant (motor oil, transmission/gear oil) oil, but too thin for paving roads) for diesel fuel. EU has imposed some limits on the sulphur emissions, but the restrictions are different for different locations.

    Illustrative on how bad the exhaust fumes from sulphur-rich heavy fuel oil are is that the prerequisite for using them in ship diesel engines was developing special alkaline motor oils that prevent the cylinders and pistons from getting corroded prematurely.

    Also, the CO2 emissions from cruise ships can be bigger than from flying the same distance, as the ships not only haul you and you luggage but also a lot of other stuff like the swimming pools, restaurants, shops and what have you.

  34. says

    Cruises ships are floating environmental disasters. As blf has quoted, they also have many other issues. Now, to be fair I have less than zero interest in cruises so I see the problems clearly without believing in any redeeming features, so I’m quite biased against them. It’s also the kind of tourism that is often steeped in a colonial mindset, with people travelling to a dozen places in as many days thinking that they now know the places.
    Our holidays for the last couple of years have been spent near Barcelona, a city where AirBNB and cruise ships are fighting for the worst impact of tourism on the city and I’m always amazed at the arrogance of cruise tourists who think that the whole city must now cater to them since they only got 10 hours and also that now they have seen Barcelona…

  35. brain says

    I don’t like cruise ships and would never go on a cruise for leisure, but I happen to know very well cruise ships due to my job.
    First of all:

    spewing sewage into the ocean

    That’s not what modern cruise companies ships do. There is onboard treatment of sewage before releasing it into the ocean. And apart from that, “spewing sewage into the ocean” is what you do anyway when you go to the beach or live in a city near enough to the sea.

    As for

    the potential to be trapped with thousands of others in a confined space, suffering from gastrointestinal aliments like norovirus

    again, this applies to many human activities in big cities with too many persons in too little space and with too much automation and mass production. Reliable cruise companies take hygiene and sanitation very seriously: not necessarily because they care, but for sure because any issue immediately reflects on future revenues and bookings, for a very long time.

    As for cruises themselves: I find them a stupid way to spend your free time: you pretend to be “at sea” but the sea is normally 40 meters below you and you are in a luxury steel floating hotel/mall/entertainment center. However I have noticed that cruises have an high rate of disabled guests: being a safe, controlled, everything-at-hand environment, they are a good way to allow people with issues to have fun, interact with other people, travel around and see some places.

    (For me, vacations means hiking in the mountains)