In the spring of 2019 I was hired by a major cruise line as an onboard naturalist. I qualified due to my work experience and, more importantly, my B.S. in Aquatic & Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington. For the previous four years I had not been using my insanely expensive education to make a living. Instead, I had been working at a small independently owned musical instrument shop/school. Though I loved the job (great people, conscientious business, fair treatment and pay), it obviously did not utilize my hard earned knowledge of the natural world.
So when I was offered a job with the cruise line, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, sort of. In truth, I was somewhat reluctant to give up my position with the music shop, where I ran the school in the evenings. I had gotten to know the students and teachers extremely well over the years and thoroughly enjoyed the work. So the decision to leave was not as easy as it might have been otherwise. But the naturalist job, in the end, was simply too good to pass up.
The application process was fairly grueling, but seemed well worth the effort. I had to take an extensive medical exam to prove my fitness for life at sea that put me back nearly $500 (to be partly reimbursed by my employer). I had to renew my expired passport (since we would pass through Canadian waters), fill out countless reams of paperwork, pass all the background checks, and also write and memorize my own Powerpoint presentations for the season, which ran from mid-May thru the end of September. And, of course, I spent the four months prior to boarding doing extensive research on everything Alaska. This was primarily because, though my education was thorough, it was broad in scope. I needed to familiarize myself with the natural history of very specific regions, both in and out of the water.
The ship, a 900-odd foot long behemoth, was to make bi-weekly runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Glacier Bay, Alaska, stopping at towns like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan along the way. As naturalist, it was my job to give a couple of brief presentations about the local wildlife once or twice a day, covering everything from whales to bears to trees. Sometimes I would be expected to lead wildlife spotting sessions from on deck if we sailed past areas of high animal traffic. The majority of the day, though, I would spend just sort of hanging around the ship, making myself available to answer any questions posed by curious guests, should they have any.
All of these duties, though, were conducted only on “sea days.” When in port, other than performing gangway duty early in the morning, there was nothing to do but go on various land or sea based excursions such as whale watching tours or nature hikes. Even these, which guests would pay anywhere from $100-$800 to book, were, for me, free of charge. Since these excursions were not mandatory, if I was in the mood, I could spend the day alone wandering the towns, entertaining myself at the local taverns or finding my own trail to explore. In short, port days were my own.
The whole gig seemed perfect. It ticked off all the checkboxes of what I considered the perfect job. As an officer, I received great pay, medical/dental benefits, free room and board, and the chance to wake up somewhere different every morning and see sights in remote areas glimpsed by relatively few people on Earth. And, most importantly, I was able to work in my actual field, something I had not done in years.
The ship itself was an enormous floating luxury hotel. I had access to the same food as the guests, which is to say an assortment of food that rivaled in quality the best I could ever hope to find onshore, even in my own big city of Seattle. And, of course, it was all free, as much as I could eat. To stave off potential obesity, there was a gym for officers to use whenever they wished, as well as two pools (one beneath an enormous retractable roof). For entertainment, there were several hot tubs, saunas, a casino, a varied selection of bars, large theaters with live shows, and even a basketball court. If I wanted to get away from guests, I had access to the Officer’s Bar (OB), which sat directly behind the enormous open bow, a massive uncluttered space with the best view of the whole ship, and, most importantly, was completely off-limits to all guests.
Though my cabin was small and modest, it did have a porthole and I didn’t have to share it with anyone. There was a TV with some free pre-loaded movies on it, along with a tiny desk and nightstand. The bathroom was little more than an indentation in the wall. The toilet was virtually identical to those found in business class airplanes, complete with the deafening roar that accompanied every flush. The shower was a tiny stall. Stepping inside, my face would be inches from the wall and the curtain would be practically sticking to my ass. How anyone over, say, 200 pounds could possibly bathe themselves in such a cramped space remains a mystery to me.
Overall, though, my cabin was a comfortable enough space. Like all crew cabins, it was located belowdecks. In my case, A-Deck. Most of the non-officer crew cabins were below mine on B and C-Deck, and in much smaller spaces than my own, nearly all equipped with bunk beds and without portholes.
The vast majority of the crew, some 900 or so souls as I recall, were, of course, not officers but rather housekeeping, kitchen, servers, and the like. In other words, the most essential part of the ship, at least in terms of making the guests happy. Nearly every last one of them were recruited from the Philippines and a few other areas of Southeast Asia. When interfacing with the guests, they were the picture of hospitality; soft-spoken, extremely polite and deferential, and always eager to be of assistance.
This behavior did not just extend to the guests, however. Quite often I would find myself passing Filipino men or women a good twenty years my senior, calling me “sir,” and treating me with what I began to suspect was caution. I found this to be uncomfortable and would often make a point of calling them by their first names in an attempt to cultivate a sense of familiarity and, more importantly, equality.
There were a couple of the Filipino workers who I ended up getting to know on a first name basis, though. One in particular, I’ll call her Stephanie, was in her forties and was from just outside Manila. She worked longer hours than some commercial fishermen I know. Working as a beverage server, it was her task to walk around whatever bar she was assigned to for the evening and take drink orders from guests, which would then be charged to their ship accounts (there are no cash transactions onboard).
The hours Stephanie worked were brutal. One night she closed down a bar at 4:00am and was back at work directing disembarking passengers in port just three hours later. Over a two week period she worked approximately 150 hours but made only $360 U.S. dollars for her time. Worked out to an hourly wage, that is a measly $2.40 per hour, a wage that would have been unacceptable to most people even clear back in the 1980s.
But to work it out to an hourly wage would be irrelevant because that wasn’t how she was compensated. Nor was she salaried. Instead, she, and others like her, worked solely on commission, receiving a small percentage of every drink order she took from a guest. With the absence of cash, there were no tips. Even the slip of paper the guest signed authorizing the charges to their ship account had no place for gratuity. To make matters worse, because Stephanie was in her forties, she had to compete against other younger women for drink orders.
She didn’t stand a chance.
This, to me, was shocking. For working a mere fraction of the hours Stephanie did, I received roughly $3,500 per month. And, unlike Stephanie, I wasn’t packed like a sardine with others in a cramped cabin.
The Filipino workers were also not allowed above deck unless they were on duty. If they were caught anywhere above A-Deck, which is where the crew area began, they had better have a good reason. I, on the other hand, was free to wander the ship at will, frequenting any area the guests could, in addition to the aforementioned bar reserved solely for officers.
I was aware beforehand of the segregation onboard between the officers and Filipino crew. What completely took me off guard, though, was just how poorly they were treated. Any notion of ‘separate but equal’ would be an absurdity.
Because most of their positions were service-related (cooks, housekeeping, etc), they rarely got much time, if any, to leave the ship. Though we would dock in some of the larger Alaskan towns such as Juneau for the entire day, most of the Filipino crew could consider themselves lucky if they got an hour or two ashore. If they did, their time was invariably spent making runs to WalMart, purchasing items to send back home to their families in the Philippines, items that were either beyond their financial reach or simply unavailable there.
Whereas I enjoyed a buffet of exquisite and diverse items coupled with a scenic view, their mess hall resembled a dilapidated public school cafeteria. The last time I went down there they had only brown and oily fish heads, rice, and fruit to choose from. And, to spice things up, a vending machine.
Incidentally, it was these same Filipinos who cooked and prepared all the rich and delicious food only one deck above. Yet they were forbidden to eat a single bite, despite a stupendous amount of it ending up as waste at the end of each day.
Sensing a financial opportunity, a number of officers would even smuggle some of this food below deck, selling it to the Filipino crew at 100% profit. This was part of a larger network known, tongue in cheek, as the ‘Filipino Mafia.’ And this particular black market didn’t deal merely in food. Though I never witnessed it directly, I heard rumors of certain services being rendered by some female crew members to those officers with more cash than they knew what to do with.
Even more revolting than the greasy fish heads (which I never saw make it to anybody’s actual plate) was the smoking area for the Filipino crew. Now, I’m not a smoker. Still, it was difficult not to feel a bit of sympathy when observing the striking difference between the designated areas for officers and those of regular crew.
Whenever an officer wanted to light up, they would do so on the open bow, out in the fresh air, free to lean on the rail and gaze out at the picturesque mountains and sea. The Filipinos smoking section, on the other hand, was down below on A-Deck in a cramped room. I only caught a glimpse inside once, as someone opened the door to leave. As he did so, a dense cloud of toxic smoke billowed out into the hall. Whatever fans they had running in that small space were clearly taxed beyond their capacity.
Most egregious of all, though, was the sexual harassment endured by an untold number of female Filipino women at the hands of the officers and/or their superiors. I was aware of at least one case in which Stephanie had reported an incident of sexual harassment on behalf of one of her co-workers who could not speak English very well. Rather than go to her supervisor, however, she chose to go to someone else. Since the complaint was now out of his hands, he could no longer squash it.
Apparently not happy about this, he first tried to tell Stephanie that the incident in question should not in fact be viewed as sexual harassment at all. The woman had simply been embarrassed, he said (clearly a judgement that was not his to make). At any rate, to demonstrate his displeasure with my friend, he began randomly calling her in for what she termed ‘bananas.’
A banana, it turns out, is not a delicious fruit, at least in this context. Rather, it is the Filipino term for a reprimand. He began to do this often, and for no apparent reason. It became so commonplace, in fact, that she got called away to one in my presence not long after I first learned what it was. She returned fifteen minutes or so later visibly upset. It was pretty clear his whole aim was to harass her until she quit.
The abuse was not limited to these bananas, either. A day after Stephanie filed her complaint, her cabin was ‘randomly’ searched. Nobody else’s rooms were bothered, just hers. And she was totally and completely powerless to do a thing about it. For all I know, the abuse continues.
At this point I should be clear about one thing. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a social justice warrior. In fact, I generally will avoid going out of my way to help a group of people struggling with any type of societal ill-will or abuse, despicable as I find it. I care much more about individuals than humanity writ large. Essentially, I’m a people person that hates people. But that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable surrounding myself with such inequality and injustice on a daily basis. Particularly in the confined space of a ship at sea.
But the human rights abuses were not the only problem I had with my employer.
Another issue, one that was, in my opinion, much more far-reaching and impactful, was the pollution of the air and sea by these behemoth vessels. Soon after boarding I discovered that the company I worked for was actually on probation for illegally dumping over half a million gallons of gray water, sewage, oil, and food waste into the sea and then lying to regulators about it. Later, after some digging, I learned that this was hardly an isolated incident. The company continued to violate the terms of its probation. As a result, a federal judge released to the public a 205-page report detailing over 800 incidents of environmental negligence in the space of a single year (April 2017-April 2018). Even my own ship was on the list of offenders.
I knew none of this going in to the job. I was not so naive, of course, to believe that cruise ships were a green industry. I knew they would have at least some negative impacts on the environment in which they sailed. They are, after all, huge floating luxury hotels. How could they not have an impact? But I didn’t think the company would risk its global reputation by intentionally and systematically polluting the water.
I was hired as a naturalist. My job was to get up in front of large groups of passengers and talk about wildlife and the importance of conservation. For all I knew, while I was standing at the bow reminding folks not to toss their trash or food over the railing, the company I worked for was discharging waste out the stern.
Such hypocrisy was too much, even for me. And that’s saying something.
So, I quit.
I did so not because I disliked the job. On the contrary, I was treated well and the work itself, along with the unparalleled perks that came with it, were second to none. As far as those things are concerned, I will almost certainly never again find their equal in a job.
But, rightly or wrongly, I let my principles get the better of me. This isn’t the first time I have allowed this to happen.
Hopefully, though, it will be the last.
1 thought on “Observations of a Cruise Ship Worker”
I just read your 2019 musing about working on a Pacific Northwest cruise ship. I have done a number of cruises -1980s to present. I think your piece should be more widely published, or shared with an established travel writer with a conscience – if you can find one. And don’t lose your sense of indignation! The world will never improve if we consistently put our head down and look away.