Amid coronavirus, cruise ships idle away off SoCal coast

The Norwegian Joy was docked at the Port of Los Angeles on Sunday.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Massive freighters regularly drift at anchor off the coast of Southern California waiting to unload cargo at the ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach. Tankers and container vessels are a common sight for local residents from San Pedro south to Huntington Beach.

During the past few weeks, however, some huge new silhouettes have joined the bulky freighter outlines visible from shore: full-size cruise ships biding time until they can resume sailing internationally. In the same way airlines have mothballed some of their fleets due to the coronavirus crisis, cruise lines are stashing hundreds of ships at various ports throughout the U.S.

Ten of the big ships are in Southern California waters this week, but the number shifts frequently. Some are docked, others are anchored at sea. Most are visible from shore. None are carrying passengers.


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In early March, Americans were warned by health and federal officials to avoid cruises because of coronavirus outbreaks aboard some ships.

On March 13, Cruise Lines International Assn., the industry’s largest trade organization, announced that its members, who operate about 300 ships, would voluntarily suspend cruise ship operations from and to U.S. ports of call. Most lines have now extended the suspensions until mid-May or later.

A handful of ships that departed before the shutdown are still at sea with passengers aboard, but all are making their way toward land.

Seven of the mothballed ships currently docked or anchored here are Carnival Cruise Lines vessels. Carnival is the world’s largest cruise line, with 100 ships sailing under 10 brands, including Carnival brand, which has four ships docked or anchored in the Long Beach area and Princess brand, with three ships in the Port of Los Angeles area in San Pedro.

The ships take turns anchoring or docking. “We have to move ships out of port to conduct maneuvers and maintenance,” said Vance Gulliksen, public relations manager for Carnival Corp.

Plus, there aren’t enough docks to hold all the ships. Carnival brand, for instance, has 27 ships in its fleet. “We’re anchoring ships at sea as there is a demand for berths and a shortage of available space,” Gulliksen said.


In addition to the ships now in Southern California waters, Carnival brand has ships docked or anchored in three Florida ports, plus Galveston, Texas; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; and Charleston, S.C.

The newest ship in Carnival brand’s fleet, Panorama, is docked in Long Beach. The 5,000-passenger ship, which was launched in December, began sailing weekly cruises from Southern California to the Mexican Riviera before Christmas.

The vessel had a coronavirus scare in early March when a sick passenger was tested for the disease and cruisers held overnight on board in Long Beach. But the test came back negative. Panorama’s last cruise ended March 14.

Last week the ship was anchored offshore. On March 31, it moved to Carnival’s Port of Long Beach berth, where it will remain until it switches place with another ship on Wednesday. Crew members are not allowed to go ashore during docking.

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What’s it like on board?

Some things are vastly different, others are much the same, said Lars Juel during an afternoon phone call.


Juel, Panorama’s hotel manager, serves with 1,400 crew members. At some point, Carnival may begin sending crew members home who are not essential for ships’ operations, but nothing has been finalized yet, said Gulliksen.

The big difference now for the crew, of course, is the 5,000 missing passengers. Said Juel, “Everybody would like to have the guests on board. It gives you energy. It keeps you occupied.”

In the absence of passengers, “the crew has been doing a lot of housekeeping, a lot of cleaning, a lot of sanitizing. And we still have to feed a lot of people. In many ways we have normal operations.”

Meals are served on the 10th-floor Lido Deck buffet, with breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and a midnight meal available. “People are doing social distancing. But we’re also having team meetings and keeping people updated on what’s going on.”

For entertainment, the ship’s Wi-Fi has been juiced up so everyone has free access, movies are being shown, and some crew members are playing guitars and other music for entertainment.


“There’s a good atmosphere on board,” said Juel, a native of Oslo, who has worked for Carnival for 14 years. “Morale is high because we’re all going to make it together,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat, pardon the pun.”

Three other Carnival ships rotate with Panorama at the Long Beach dock: Carnival Miracle, Carnival Inspiration and Carnival Imagination.

The Port of Los Angeles World Cruise Center in San Pedro currently has two Princess ships docked or anchored, Royal and Star Princess. A third ship, Pacific Princess, is on route to Los Angeles from Australia, according to Princess representatives.

Several Princess ships have been affected in some way by coronavirus-related problems, including the illness and death of passengers, cancellation of port stops or cancellation of trips.

Also, the Norwegian Joy was docked in San Pedro on Sunday morning.

Among the other ships being mothballed in Southland waters are three high-end cruise liners that are docked or anchored off San Diego: Regent Seven Seas Splendor, and Celebrity Cruises’ Eclipse and Millenium. Splendor was just christened Feb. 24 and is considered one of the world’s most luxurious ships.