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Many of us fantasize about journeying to exotic, far-off locations, and for some people cruises are the perfect way to realize that dream. Indeed, with more than 12 million North Americans setting sail on cruise liners every year, the industry is one of the biggest tourist sectors in the world. However, behind their promise of paradise, cruise ships often cover up some less than idyllic secrets. From work violations to deaths and disappearances, these are the strange facts travel companies would rather keep to themselves.

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20. Companies exploit labor and tax laws through legal loopholes

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While U.S. cruise lines generate around $38 billion annually, little of this profit actually goes back into the U.S. economy. Thanks to flag-of-convenience tactics, which involve companies cynically registering their ships in foreign countries, businesses can avoid paying tax altogether. In addition, they make U.S. companies exempt from American labor laws, allowing them to pay their workers pitiful salaries.

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19. Crew members work long hours for very little money

Working on a cruise sounds like a dream job, but the realities for ship staff can be downright nightmarish. Indeed, personnel are often expected to work agonizing 100-hour weeks and may be paid as little as $400 a month. As a result, cruise lines regularly recruit from Third World countries where labor laws are less stringent.

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18. Cabin crews have an unspoken social hierarchy

Though cabin crews are often isolated from the outside world, life below deck follows societal norms to an uncomfortable degree. As former cruise-ship performer Danielle Gauer revealed to Cruise Law News in 2013, a ship’s staff maintain incredibly strict hierarchies. To this end, menial workers often sleep in the lowest decks, while low-ranking staff are quietly dissuaded from fraternizing with officers.

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17. Every corner of a ship is covered by CCTV

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Think you’re going to get some peace and privacy onboard a cruise ship? Well, think again! Due to the surprising number of crimes reported onboard vessels, security is of paramount importance to any cruise company. As a result, ships come equipped with more CCTV equipment than a bank vault, which leaves no corner unobserved.

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16. Pirate attacks are a very real danger

There are many threats when sailing the high seas, but one of the most surprising hazards comes from pirate attacks. Indeed, between 2005 and 2012, six different cruise ships were raided. They included the MSC Melody, the passengers of which threw furniture to discourage their assailants. Consequently, crews are now trained to deal with such assaults and some companies even employ ex-military security guards.

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15. Cruise ships are a great place to put on weight

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Although cruise vacations appeal to all types of people, they should probably be avoided by those watching their waistlines. Thanks to the fattening meals and sedentary activities cruise ships offer, passengers are likely to gain weight during their trip. In fact, a 2012 survey by Bon Voyage discovered that leisure-loving seafarers usually put on one pound a day.

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14. Cruise ships are a breeding ground for disease

Besides clogging their customers’ arteries, cruise ships can hamper a passenger’s health in other less savory ways. In particular, cramped cabins make vessels a perfect breeding ground for the norovirus, an incredibly infectious stomach ailment that is worryingly common on oceanic voyages. Most recently, the bug afflicted 252 passengers onboard a Fred Olsen ship in 2016.

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13. Morgues are a common feature on all cruise ships

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Most cruises tend to last long periods of time and vessels must be prepared for all eventualities. This even applies to passenger deaths, so all cruise ships are required by law to include morgues. However, sometimes a single mortuary isn’t enough. Indeed, during a particularly fatal cruise in 2007, one ship reportedly ran out of space to store its cadavers.

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12. Cruise ships are one of the leading causes of oceanic pollution

With some ships carrying as many as 9,000 people, cruise liners naturally accumulate plenty of sewage while at sea. Alarmingly, the biggest vessels sometimes deposit over 200,000 gallons of waste into the oceans each week, which can cause grave harm to marine life. Combined with other chemicals jettisoned, this detritus makes cruise ships one of the seas’ leading pollutants.

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11. Decks are more polluted than most city streets

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In addition to the waste left in the ocean, cruise ships also release appalling amounts of pollutants into the air. Indeed, an average liner’s exhaust is 100 times more toxic than a motor vehicle’s fumes – and much of this smog hangs around a ship’s upper deck. According to research by conservation charity NABU, passengers regularly breathe in air more polluted than that found in city streets.

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10. Many passengers have been left stranded on shore

For many travelers, fellow passengers returning late to a ship can be a source of much frustration. However, ocean liner captains have little patience for such behavior and, due to scheduling conflicts and port rules, they often leave latecomers behind at rest stops. Last year the crew of one luxury vessel even left dock without two parents whose children were still onboard.

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9. Falling overboard is a common occurrence

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Boat decks may come equipped with plentiful safety features, but some passengers still fall overboard each year. What’s more, the number of incidents is higher than most would think. For example, in 2015 alone 26 people were lost at sea during cruises. Though some of these cases were attempted suicides, others were accidents likely triggered by alcohol consumption.

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8. Cruise lines aren’t accountable for customer deaths

While passenger mishaps are surprisingly common at sea, injured parties can only claim small amounts of compensation from cruise companies. Due to the Death on High Seas Act, travel businesses are only legally required to cover their passenger’s funeral costs and lost wages. Even more alarmingly, there is no official record of cruise-related fatalities, leaving corporations with little incentive to take accountability.

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7. Cruise passengers often cheat on their partners

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Many tourists fantasize about holiday flings and cruise vacationers are no different. To illustrate, a 2015 survey by Cruise found that four in five travelers engaged in sex during voyages. However, in a surprising twist, the poll also found that 20 percent of passengers cheated on their partners while onboard – often when their spouses were on the same trip.

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6. STDs are rife at sea

Despite their passengers getting down and dirty in the cabins, cruise lines don’t usually cater for sexually active travellers. In fact, only 30 percent of ships sell condoms onboard and this has contributed to an alarming spread of STDs at sea. The epidemic is so great that in 2014 the UK government even urged patrons to pack prophylactics before setting sail.

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5. Cruise lines forbid relationships between passengers and crew

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Although sexual activity between passengers is fairly common, the same can’t be said for interactions between staff members and travelers. As ex-cruise worker Brian David Bruns revealed in his 2015 book Cruise Confidential, fraternizing with passengers could have serious consequences for the crew. “Being caught means instant firing and being dropped off in whatever country the very next port is in,” he explained.

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4. Cruise staff get little to no sleep at sea

Indeed, working on a cruise liner certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Besides the grueling 100-hour weeks, staff sometimes go for as long as ten months without a single day off. What’s more, workers shouldn’t expect a healthy sleep pattern. According to Bruns, he often had as little as four hours’ shuteye each night throughout his employment.

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3. Staff have special codes for when things go really wrong

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Of course, accidents are bound to happen at sea, but cabin crew are keen to avoid panic when they occur. As a result, ship staff use secret codes when things get hairy, and some of them are particularly intriguing. For example, “Mr. Mob” refers to someone falling overboard, while “Zulu, Zulu, Zulu” is used should a fight break out.

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2. Sexual assaults happen with alarming regularity

From pirate attacks to choppy waters, the ocean can be a dangerous place. However, for female passengers at least, the biggest threats can often be found onboard. To wit, 39 sexual assaults were recorded on cruise ships in 2016. Moreover, in 2010 a ship’s captain was jailed for indecent acts against a 14-year-old traveler.

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1. Passengers frequently disappear from ships

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Being at sea can naturally make it difficult for cruise passengers to slip away unnoticed. However, that hasn’t stopped a large number of travellers mysteriously disappearing over the years, with a startling 165 people reported missing since 1995. Some notable examples include the case of Rebecca Coriam, who vanished from a Disney ship in 2011.

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