Empty cabins and a crying captain: What it was like on Ovation of the Seas after White Island.


On Monday, thousands of people disembarked Ovation of the Seas in Sydney Harbour. They were supposed to be full of stories of their adventures and relaxed ahead of the busyness of Christmas. Instead, there were tears of relief and devastation.

Five days into their journey, a number of passengers died after taking up the ship’s offer to go on a volcano tour at Whakaari/White Island.

16 people were killed in the blast, ten were Australian. There are still dozens in hospital with severe burns.

Julie Richards and Jessica Richards
Julie Richards and Jessica were among those killed. Image: Facebook.

More than 4000 excitedly boarded the 12-day cruise that promised “epic adventures” from “jaw-dropping fjords to dramatic volcanoes to peaceful lakes”.


After four nights on board they reached Tauranga, a coastal city about 90km from White Island. The volcano tour was one of the activities on offer.

One passenger told the Herald Sun the ship provided them information about the island but did not mention the alert level, which had been upgraded to a level two a few weeks before. That’s the level just before it's actually exploding.

Of the 47 people on White ­Island when its volcano erupted at 2.11pm on Monday 10, 38 were from Ovation, according to The Guardian.

Here's the explosion as filmed from a nearby tourist boat. Post continues after video.

Video by Blue Wave 2020

Life on board - which was previously full of joy and laughter - turned first to shock and confusion and then despair.

Robin Oilsmith said in hindsight the announcements were unnerving, with the crew potentially looking for passengers that were never to return.

"There were three cabins they just kept calling," she told the NZ Herald.

A man named Brad told 9News, "When the bell rang and the captain spoke you could hear a pin drop and it was a very emotional time because even if you didn't know the people you were affected and you feel for them. It's a tragedy."


A honeymooning couple told The Australian the ship fell “eerily silent” after the captain announced the tragedy while Donna Field, an ABC journalist and guest on the cruise tweeted out that the ship that night had a "pretty sombre mood" as they waited for answers.

But news from authorities and the cruise ship was limited, and many passengers and loved ones waiting for answers told the media they got more answers through them. That first night the ship's entertainment schedule went ahead as planned as though news of the tragedy hadn't quite sunk in.


Peter Elzer lost his son Richard on the volcano - he'd been on the cruise with a group of friends. In a statement, Peter expressed his frustration at the Australian authorities for their lack of information. Peter was back home in Coffs Harbour but he too got more updates from the media.

"We are frustrated by the lack of information provided to us from the Australian authorities up until now," he wrote.

"I would like to call for a change to the way the Department of Foreign Affairs corresponds with immediate family members in crises like these. To be reliant on media reports for information shows a real lack of consideration for the welfare of the families of the deceased."

ovation of the seas white island
Jason Griffiths, 33, Karla Mathews, 32, and her boyfriend Richard Elzer, 32, were among those killed. Image: Facebook.

The ship stayed in port for a few more days than it was supposed to as the tragedy unfolded, but when the decision was made for it to set off again, the New Zealand locals made sure their last memories were beautiful.

Crowds gathered to wave goodbye and local Māori and dignitaries stood with the crew and prayed with them for calm and healing.

"It's important to remember their families around Christmas time and all those who won't be going home to their families," a local man who wished to remain anonymous told the NZ Herald.


Those onboard then began the sombre journey back towards Australia, skipping Milford Sound, the highlight of the trip, and instead docking back in Sydney at 6am on Monday.

Most praised the efforts of staff who were witnessed in tears alongside their passengers. But others criticised the cruise liner and said it had handled the incident terribly.

"[It was] a bit sombre. The crew were really good. They were trying to stay upbeat and happy and do what they could but you could tell they were hurting. I think the captain was breaking down crying a fair bit," a man named Troy told Today.

An unnamed man told The Australian his son had lost friends when the volcano erupted but hadn't been offered any counselling or grief services. He described the boat as a "prison ship" in that they weren't allowed to know anything.

He showed reporters in Circular Quay the mental health sheet that was handed to his family the day before they disembarked, adding that his son "was not ok, he was at the medical centre at 2am, it was terrible", reported Yahoo news.


In a statement, Royal Caribbean thanked the passengers for their understanding.

"Our thoughts remain with those affected and we will continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time," they said.

As family members were reunited with loved ones back on shore, another heart-wrenching moment came as the suitcases of those killed were removed from the ship.

"(It) just broke my heart," Joanne said, as she sobbed outside the terminal.

"These people went on a holiday of a lifetime and never came home," she told the NZ Herald.

Feature image: AAP/GETTY.