How Many Cruise Ships Are Still Stuck at Sea? Sick Passengers, Closed Ports Leave Boats in Limbo

More than two weeks ago, cruise companies came together to announce that they would suspend sailings for thirty days and all their ships currently on voyages would return home amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

But numerous boats full of passengers are currently still stranded at sea — here’s why.

On March 13, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) — a trade organization that represents Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Princess, Holland America and many more— shared that in observance of government health recommendations and increasing travel restrictions, its members would voluntarily stop new cruises from departing at midnight on March 14, and all ships already at sea would make their way home.

At the time, 40 cruise ships carrying 90,000 passengers were in the middle of their planned itineraries around the world, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The DHS released a timeline for their safe return: 11 of the ships were to complete their sailings and get back to port by March 16. The remaining 29 were to do so by March 30.

However, CLIA confirmed to PEOPLE on Monday (the deadline by which the boats were meant to have returned), that 3.6% of its members’ 277 vessels had not yet made it back, meaning approximately 10 ships with passengers on board are still at sea. Another five are docked but cannot yet disembark.

Only one ship does not yet have a final port identified, a representative for CLIA confirmed to PEOPLE. (While the organization works with 38 major international cruise companies, it’s possible there are more boats outside of their network still stranded as well.)

Of the ships still stuck at sea, Holland America’s MS Zaandam is currently experiencing the worst imaginable scenario.

The vessel, which was sailing up the coast of Chile last week, tried to follow the order to go to the nearest port and get its passengers on flights home, but found them all closed due to local government restrictions put in place amid the pandemic, a representative for the company confirmed to PEOPLE on Friday.

The Zaandam had been scheduled to end its voyage on March 22, but on March 27, it was still stranded off shore near Panama.

At that time there were already four dead and 138 people ill on board with coronavirus-like symptoms. Two people had been found to be positive for COVID-19 out of an undisclosed number tested.

After meeting with another Holland America ship at sea to transfer healthy passengers off the boat and deliver medical supplies, both ships are now on their way toward Ft. Lauderdale, Florida via the Panama Canal.

On Monday, the number of sick people on board rose to 189, 73 passengers and 116 crew.

Another ship, the Coral Princess, has found itself in a similar, if less dire, situation, in the South Atlantic. When trying to disembark in Buenos Aires, only Argentinian citizens and international travelers with flights departing the same day were allowed off the boat, despite having no reported illnesses on board. The other passengers had to remain on the ship and spent days sailing up the coast trying unsuccessfully to gain access to ports in Uruguay and Brazil.

That ship is currently heading to Barbados for fuel and supplies and then on to Ft. Lauderdale by April 4, more than two weeks after its scheduled end date, according to Princess.

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The fear surrounding transmission of coronavirus on cruise ships was heightened by a deadly outbreak on the Diamond Princess in February. That ship, was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, for weeks  with sick passengers on board. A total of 621 people eventually tested positive for COVID-19. According to Reuters, seven former passengers have now died. Some of the infected passengers from that ship have since become among the first to take part in a coronavirus drug trial.

A second ship, the Grand Princess, was quarantined off San Francisco after 21 people on board tested positive for the illness in March. That ship has since docked in the port of Oakland and those on board have been placed in quarantine on land.

Before the decision to halt sailings was reached, many cruise lines were proceeding with voyages as planned amid warnings from the CDC and U.S. State Department that citizens, particularly those in compromised health, “should not travel by cruise ship” at this time.

Carnival was offering passengers a $200 on-board credit to not cancel their cruise in early March. And according to leaked emails reportedly obtained by the Miami New Times, Norwegian managers were pressuring salespeople to lie about the dangers of coronavirus — including telling customers that they could not contract the illness because of the tropical climate where they planned to sail, which is false.

The travel industry is already one of the hardest hit financially by the pandemic.

The DHS predicted that over the 30-day period, approximately 500 cruises and 1.2 million passengers will be impacted by suspended itineraries.

On Monday, several major cruise lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, extended their suspensions until mid-May.

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