Discovering Abandoned Cruise Ships and Ocean Liners

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We think of cruise ships as engineering marvels outfitted with lavish interiors and a wide variety of amenities, but what happens to them when they are abandoned? To answer this question, we will take a deep dive into the world of abandoned cruise ships. 

Not only will we explain how these once bustling ships end up getting abandoned, but we will also highlight where some of the world’s most famous abandoned cruise ships and wreckage sites are. We will even explain whether or not adventurous tourists can visit and explore some of these ghostly abandoned cruise ships. 

So, if you are ready to dive into uncharted waters and uncover the mysteries of abandoned cruise ships, it’s time to get started!

Why Do Cruise Ships Get Abandoned?

Cruise ships remain incredibly valuable assets even when they are no longer serviceable. Not only do the vessels’ furnishings, amenities, and equipment retain significant value for the cruise lines that own the ships, but the scrap value of the metal and other materials that the ship is constructed from can be worth millions of dollars. 

Given how valuable full-size cruise ships are, regardless of their age and condition, you might wonder why they would ever sit abandoned rather than being taken for recycling at a ship scrapping yard

Most decommissioned cruise ships are taken for dismantling at a ship scrapping yard. After the cruise line has removed everything of value, the remaining hull of the ship is auctioned off and eventually sent to a scrap yard that can handle dismantling a vessel of that size. 

However, in rare cases, retrieving and scraping a cruise ship may not be economically viable, especially if transporting that ship to a scrap yard would prove to be too expensive and complicated. In other cases, disposing of a grounded cruise ship could pose serious environmental concerns. 

In these cases, the bulk of the ship may stay in a state of abandonment. In these cases, any equipment or components deemed of significant value would be dismantled on-site, but the bulk of the ship would remain behind. As we will discuss, in some instances, the decision is made to leave the cruise ship where it is, as it could make more financial sense to convert it into a floating hotel, entertainment venue, or tourist destination. 

In cases where a cruise ship capsized, even surfacing the ship can prove astronomically expensive and prohibitively difficult if the sinking occurred in an economically underprivileged region. In other words, local authorities and scrapping specialists could lack the capabilities to surface such a massive and heavy vessel. In these cases, the ship would simply lay in a state of abandonment where it was capsized. 

Where Are Some of the Most Famous Abandoned Cruise Ships?

While abandoned cruise ships are far from common sights, you can still find them in various locations worldwide. The following are just some of the most famous examples of abandoned cruise ships: 

MS World Discoverer

The MS World Discoverer is perhaps the most mysterious and interesting of all the abandoned cruise ships in the world. 

This relatively small German cruise ship struck a rocky reef near the Solomon Islands in April 2000. While the ship was safely abandoned and no crew or passengers were lost, the capsized vessel was almost immediately declared a total loss.

This was partly due to the wreck’s remote and shallow location. However, the ship could not be recovered mainly because the Solomon Islands were undergoing a violent civil war at the time of its sinking.

MS World Discoverer
MS World Discoverer (Photo Credit: Tetyana Dotsenko)

In fact, when a salvage attempt was made in late 2000, a local tribe shot arrows at the salvage crew. Naturally, this quickly ended any plans to recover the MS World Discovery

Today, the MS World Discoverer remains abandoned and lying in shallow waters. It remains beached close to shore in front of a dense jungle backdrop, adding to its mysterious and otherworldly appearance. In fact, trees and other types of plant life have even begun growing directly along the surface of the abandoned ship’s decks. 

While the ship has since been stripped of all valuables by locals, it remains a popular tourist destination. Many adventurers and explorers travel out to the site of the abandoned MS World Discoverer to photograph the remaining hull. 

Queen Elizabeth 2

The Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2 for short, is a retired British cruise ship that carried out countless transatlantic voyages during her heyday. While it was considered one of the world’s most luxurious and impressive cruise ships when it was first launched in 1969, it was eventually retired in 2008. During that time, she was even requisitioned by the British army to serve as a troop carrier during the Falklands War.

Queen Elizabeth 2 in Dubai
Queen Elizabeth 2 in Dubai (Photo Credit: Delpixel)

Despite her storied past and reputation, it was decided that the QE2 should be sold to a Dubai-based investment company for $100 million. Following her final voyage to Dubai, which included thousands of passengers, the new owners could not decide what to do with the famous vessel.

While the ship was supposed to be refurbished and converted into a floating hotel, the 2008 global recession that followed her final voyage halted these plans. Since then, she has remained idle and abandoned. After much debate, it was determined that the ship would indeed be converted into a luxury hotel, which followed over a decade of abandonment in a very public location.

MS Mediterranean Sky

The Mediterranean Sky started sailing in 1953 under her original name of MS City of York after being constructed at the Vickers Shipbuilding complex in the UK. The ship operated for Ellerman Lines, which eventually was sold off to other shipping companies until the cruise line’s name fully disappeared in 2004.

MS Mediterranean Sky
MS Mediterranean Sky (Photo Credit: Aerial-motion)

The vessel was eventually sold in 1971, along with three sister ships named City of Port Elizabeth, City of Exeter and City of Durban. Under the new name of Mediterranean Sky, she was fitted out to become more of a passenger vessel. She operated her final sailing in 1996, but eventually started to list during lay-up. The ship was finally towed in 2002 to be beached in Greece. The ship is listed to one side and remains partially sunk in Elefsina.

MS Astor

The MS Astor was launched in 1987 and served until 2020. While there were plans that the ship would continue to cruise the Mediterranean and French coast, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the cruise industry, forcing the ship’s owners, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, to enter administration. 

The ship was sold at auction to a scrapping company as part of the administration process. Due to pandemic-related issues, she then sat abandoned along the coast of Wales for nearly three years.

MS Astor
MS Astor (Photo Credit: Vytautas Kielaitis)

Since the ship was decommissioned so suddenly, the interior was hardly touched. Many urban explorers, adventurists, and photographers explored and photographed the ship’s uniquely preserved interior.

Many who explored the abandoned ship have described its interior as a time capsule due to its relatively pristine condition. Even glassware and bedding remain as she awaits her final voyage to a scrap yard.

SS United States

We don’t need to introduce you to this once iconic vessel, which now remains abandoned and hollow in Philadelphia. SS United States was built in 1951 and departed on her maiden voyage in 1952 for United States Lines. The ship is the largest ever ocean liner built in the US and still holds the blue ribbon for the fastest ocean line crossing the Atlantic.

SS United States
Photo Credit: Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock

With SS United States being full of records and firsts, it’s been sad to see her rust away since first arriving in Philadelphia in 1996. The good news is that interest remains in bringing back the iconic US vessel, mainly thanks to the SS United States Conservancy organization never giving up. Norwegian Cruise Line showed interest in the ship by adding her to the fleet; there was also interest in using the vessel as a waterfront complex; however, none of these came to fruition.

It costs $60,000 per month to dock and maintain the SS United States, and despite continued interest in redeveloping her, the conservancy group had to start looking at the possibility of scrapping the iconic ocean liner. Crystal Cruises even got close to purchasing the ship to transform her, but that eventually fell through.

SS United States Concept
SS United States Concept

Finally, in 2023, a plan was announced to restore the SS United States by RXR Realty and MCR Hotels. The plan is for the ship to hold 1,000 rooms onboard, along with a restaurant and a range of features that guests can enjoy. The plan also includes the SS United States being permanently moored in New York City. Let’s hope this plan moves forward and the ship returns to life.

Exploring abandoned cruise ships has enticed all sorts of adventurists and explorers. With that said, the activity is not always legal. Even though many abandoned cruise ships look like they belong to nobody but the ocean or sea itself, most are still private property, either owned by the original cruise line or auctioned off to scrapping companies and awaiting transport to a suitable scrap yard. 

This means entering the ship would be a form of trespassing. Aside from the legal ramifications of exploring an abandoned cruise ship, it can also be hazardous. Decaying metal can cause severe structural damage to the ship, meaning trespassers could easily hurt themselves as they wander the eerie halls of the ship.

Abandoned Cruise Ship
Abandoned Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Sashiko)

Then, of course, there are the environmental risks. If someone is exploring a partially capsized vessel, there is always the chance that they will get trapped and drown. More remote abandoned cruise ships, like the MS World Discoverer, are even treacherous to get to. Hostile locals, a dense jungle-lined coast, and a rocky reef could all pose life-threatening hazards to inexperienced explorers.

In short, unless the abandoned ship is serving as an organized and legal tourist attraction, it is unlikely that exploring it would be lawful or safe. 

Are There a Lot of Abandoned Cruise Ships?

Put simply, no. Abandoned cruise ships are incredibly rare. As we discussed, decommissioned and wrecked cruise ships still retain incredible value, especially to scrapping companies. 

Since they are so valuable, the owners rarely allow them to sit abandoned. Regarding smaller ships, like ferries and fishing vessels, abandoned hulls are far more common, as the scrap value of these types of crafts is significantly less. In these cases, removing them is not always economically viable or practical. 

What Is the Environmental Impact of Abandoned Cruise Ships?

While abandoned cruise ships can almost act as artificial reef sanctuaries for marine life in the short term, they can also pose serious environmental risks if they deteriorate for too long. 

This is because cruise ships are often constructed of materials that can contaminate marine environments over time. This is particularly true of older vessels regularly made with hazardous materials like asbestos and lead. 

An abandoned cruise ship’s primary environmental concern is the risk of a major oil spill when the ship’s fuel tanks and fuel lines eventually corrode. The MS World Discoverer is the most notorious example of this concern, as environmentalists are worried that the deteriorating ship’s fuel tanks and engine parts will eventually leak oil into the surrounding water.

Capsized abandoned passenger ship
Capsized abandoned passenger ship (Photo Credit: Aerial-motion)

New environmental regulations and pressure from local governments may reduce the number of cruise ships allowed to remain in a state of abandonment. As international regulatory organizations crack down on environmental regulations, cruise lines may face severe penalties if they do not remove their wreckage and damaged vessels in a timely manner. 

Even the cruise industry is committing to becoming more environmentally friendly, which could put pressure on individual cruise lines to deal with abandoned ships before they pose an environmental risk. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do some abandoned cruise ships get repurposed?

While most are eventually removed and broken down for scrap, some abandoned cruise ships can get repurposed. Some have been turned into maritime museums, floating restaurants, unique hotels, and even Hollywood filming locations. 

The Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, is a famous example. After sitting in a state of abandonment and neglect for decades, the city of Long Beach paid millions of dollars to renovate the old ship and transform it into a floating hotel with accommodations replicating the exact look and feel of a luxury liner. During the day, they also host ship tours and temporary exhibits, which allow guests to feel like they have traveled back in time. 

Is it safe to explore abandoned cruise ships? 

How safe it is to explore an abandoned cruise ship will depend entirely upon the ship’s condition. While some are maintained in a way that allows them to act as tourist attractions, others are in a state of deterioration and disrepair that would make them extremely dangerous to ill-equipped explorers. 

The ship’s structural integrity can be questionable, and it can be filled with jagged pieces of corroded metal. If the ship was abandoned in a remote location, seemingly insignificant injuries could prove to be life-threatening. There is also the fact that visiting some abandoned cruises is prohibited by local authorities, so that you could risk fines and more serious penalties.

How many cruise ships are decommissioned each year? 

While decommissioning a cruise ship is not the same thing as abandoning one, in some cases, a decommissioned ship can remain in a state of abandonment for many years before it is hauled to a suitable ship scrapping yard.

About 20 cruise ships will typically be decommissioned and dismantled each year, but that also depends on industry trends. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a significant decline in passenger numbers. This forced many cruise lines to decommission and scrap ships they could no longer afford to keep in operation, so the number of decommissioned ships increased substantially. 

Final Words

The world of abandoned cruise ships is undoubtedly fascinating, but these once-luxurious vessels can also pose significant environmental risks if they are not disposed of responsibly. On the other hand, they can become interesting tourist attractions for those interested in maritime history and mechanical decay.

Read Also: Uncovering the Secrets of the Cruise Ship Graveyard

Ideally, a cruise ship would be dismantled and recycled or altogether repurposed, so it can continue to serve a useful purpose beyond life as a sophisticated form of travel. If you want to see an abandoned cruise ship for yourself, we encourage you to visit one of the many repurposed ships, where you can enjoy guided tours or even spend the night in a floating hotel.

With any luck, the cruise industry will continue to evolve and find new and more efficient ways to recover and dispose of abandoned cruise ships so they do not threaten the marine environments that help make taking a cruise so magical.

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