Updated January 8, 2019
The outdoor pools are among the most popular spots on any cruise ship. Adults and children flock to the cool waters of the pools on hot sea days, packing the refreshing oases until there's hardly even space for splashing.
But as is the case with most land-based resorts, you join the swimming pool fun at your own risk; only three cruise lines provide lifeguards. That means, when it comes to pool time fun, safety is in the hands of the passengers in most cases.
Thankfully, there are steps all cruisers can take to keep themselves -- and their families -- safe at a cruise ship pool. Talking to your kids before you cruise about pool safety and close adult supervision at the pool are just two ways to keep kids safe.
To help all cruisers be in a position to prevent onboard drownings, Cruise Critic put six questions to the acting chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which runs Pool Safely, a public education campaign focused on pool and spa drowning prevention.
Cruise Critic: What challenges do cruise ship pools present that pools on land don't?
Robert Adler: Cruise ship pools present the same dangers as land-based pools do. However, there is a misconception that because cruise ship pools are often crowded, that one-on-one adult supervision isn't as important. It is essential for adults to closely watch children in their care whenever they are in or near the water.
Cruise Critic: A lot is said about how cruise ship pools don't have lifeguards present. How much difference does having a lifeguard make?
Adler: The presence of a lifeguard provides an additional set of trained eyes to watch swimmers. However, even if a lifeguard is present, it is still vitally important for an adult water-watcher to be on hand to watch the children in the pool. A water-watcher is an adult who is designated to keep their eyes on the children in their care while they're in or near the water. That adult should not be reading, talking on the phone or texting.
Cruise Critic: What can a parent do on a cruise ship to make sure their child is safe, especially when the pool is crowded?
Adler: Parents should always be within reach of their children when they're in or near the water. Even though a parent is on vacation, their supervision role is very important and should carry the same weight as it would when visiting a land-based pool. Do not assume that just because the pool is crowded that someone else will keep any eye on your child.
Cruise Critic: Is there something a parent can do ahead of a cruise to help prevent a drowning or near drowning?
Adler: It's important to review water safety tips with your children before leaving on vacation. These tips can be helpful during your time at the pool on the ship, as well as your time in port. Teach children not to go near the pool or spa without an adult present and to stay away from drains in the pool. If you have enough time before your trip, enroll your children in swimming lessons so they can learn how to swim. Parents should not depend on flotation devices and they should be not be treated as a substitute for supervision.
Cruise Critic: What should people without kids be watching out for when they're in a pool and kids are in the pool near them?
Adler: Preventing child drownings is the responsibility of the parents and the cruise line staff, if the children are taking part in an organized activity. However, even people without children should be cautious. Cruise ship pools are often very crowded, with children swimming alongside adults of every age. If you see something that doesn't look right, ask the child if she or he is ok. If not, get help immediately. Drowning is quick and it is silent -- it does not look like it does in the movies with arms flailing and cries for help. Unfortunately, we see too many children who drown in crowded pools that are full of other children and adults. That is why designating a specific water-watcher to supervise children is so important.
Cruise Critic: Some parents assign their older children to look after the younger kids. Is this safe?
Adler: The important thing here is not necessarily age, but that it's someone old enough to focus solely on the children he or she is watching without being distracted. Again, this means no phone (including talking, texting, looking at social media), not reading a book or magazine, etc. The water-watcher's sole focus should be on the children he or she is supervising in the pool. It's also important that the water-watcher know how to get help quickly (on a ship this means knowing where to get help from a crewmember) and also be an experienced swimmer.