Video: Celebrity's Newest Cruise Ship Rescues Cuban Refugees

Celebrity Beyond rescue
Instagram / Capt. Kate McClure / Celebrity Cruises

Published Jan 3, 2023 6:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

A surge of Cuban maritime migration is bringing hundreds of new arrivals to the Florida Keys, and up to 160 more are intercepted at sea each day in the Straits of Florida - often in dire circumstances. On Monday, the brand new cruise ship Celebrity Beyond saved more than a dozen Cuban nationals found drifting in a homemade craft, then turned them over to the U.S. Coast Guard for processing.

As Celebrity Beyond was transiting north of Cuba on Monday, the chief officer spotted a glint on the horizon, according to Capt. Kate McCue. The ship turned back on a reciprocal course to investigate, and the crew spotted a small boat with about 19 people in it. 

Capt. McCue turned the ship to make a lee, and the small boat came alongside. The crew helped the survivors to transfer over to the cruise ship, where they were provided with blankets, food and care. The ship coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard to arrange for their next steps.

On the same day, the cruise ship Carnival Celebration rescued five people from a small craft in the same region. 

“The crew on board Carnival Celebration spotted five people in distress on a small vessel 25 nautical miles northwest of Cuba and, as is customary, stopped to help them,” Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli told local media. “After rescuing the five people adrift at sea, the ship’s crew coordinated with United States Coast Guard officials.”

"It was so emotional, people were crying, cheering when they made it on board, praying, it was just very emotional. I feel like [the] 3,000 people on that ship reconsider the plight of the Cuban people in one hour," passenger Lourdes Simon told CBS News. 

Cuba's economic collapse has created a surge in refugee numbers. In 2022, the arrival rate topped the famous Mariel Boatlift of 1980, when refugees fleeing the Castro regime headed across the Strait of Florida by the thousands. Today, the vast majority of Cuban asylum-seekers travel to Mexico, then surrender to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the United States' southern land border. A record-setting 220,000 Cuban nationals were intercepted at the land border in FY2022 (September 2021 to September 2022). 

Cuban refugees who are intercepted at sea are typically deported back to Cuba by the cutters of U.S. Coast Guard 7th District. The district publishes regular repatriation numbers, and the count has been trending in the range of 60-160 people per day. This surge is exceptional: in the final quarter of the year alone, the USCG interdicted 4,076 Cubans at sea, more than twice the average pace of the previous year. 

Those who survive to be rescued and returned to Cuba may be lucky, at least by one measure. An unknown number of refugees simply vanish into the rough waters of the Gulf Stream, never to be heard from again. 

"These voyages are not only illegal, but also incredibly dangerous,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Estrada, Coast Guard Seventh District. "Sea and weather conditions can change at a moments notice and cost you your life."