JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Carnival Elation cruise ship returned to port Thursday in Jacksonville after a woman reported Tuesday night that she was sexually assaulted on board, prompting an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI.
According to the Coast Guard, the attack was reported to have occurred while the Jacksonville-based vessel was 12 miles off the U.S. coast, meaning the FBI will be the lead investigative agency.
Carnival spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews said the woman, who was a guest, told the ship's security team about the "alleged act of misconduct" by a male guest, and the man was detained on board.
In a statement, Carnival said, in part: "The female guest was offered assistance by the ship’s medical team and our Care Team; and we are continuing to offer support."
The ship arrived back in port at 6:45 a.m. Thursday after a five-day cruise to the Bahamas that departed on Feb. 24. The man in custody was handed over to federal authorities.
Passengers told News4Jax that the cruise line did not make an announcement about the incident or that anyone had been detained. One said she saw a man being led away in handcuffs.
"Other passengers said a couple doors down from their stateroom was all taped off and said, 'No evidence tampering' and stuff,” passenger Nancy Allred said.
Although passengers weren't alerted, Mathews said law enforcement authorities, including the FBI, were notified immediately after the woman reported the incident, per the ship's security protocols.
The primary role for Coast Guard Investigative Services will be to ensure ship personnel followed those protocols in their initial response to the incident.
"As is standard, the FBI Jacksonville Division has been advised of a potential incident on the high seas, and we are working with our law enforcement and government agency partners to obtain additional information," FBI Jacksonville Division spokeswoman Amanda Videll said. "The investigation is ongoing, and no details can be confirmed at this time."
Passengers said learning about the incident was unsettling.
"Unfortunately, there's no way for them to do background checks on people to know what people
are going to do, but it is very scary,” Allred said.
Allred and other passengers said while the news made them uneasy, they never felt personally unsafe while on the ship.
Cruise expert's take
Odyssey travel agent Jeannie Smith said even if security officers detain someone on a cruise ship, they don't have the power to formally charge someone with a crime.
"They can detain them and then they will be sent to authorities on their next point of landing," she said. "This one was within so many miles of the U.S., so the FBI is involved. If they were way out to sea, it would have been something else."
Smith added that sexual assault investigations on cruise ships are very rare.
"I've been going cruising for 25 years and I've never run into an incident. It's far and few between. It's when something happens, everybody knows about it very quickly," she said.
Smith advised all cruise passengers to be aware of their surroundings at all times and urged passengers to immediately report any kind of crime to a security officer or the captain so they can take appropriate action.
“Anybody can get on a cruise. Cruise lines don’t do background checks, just like you can go to any hotel without a background check. You can get on an airline without a background check. All you have to have is your government ID or a passport," Smith said.
Passenger Angela Branch said she takes safety precautions when she travels.
"I cruise with my husband, and he don't ever leave my side,” Branch said. “You just have to look out for yourself."