It was an emotional moment for Australian cruise passengers from the Diamond Princess. They had finally been allowed to return home.

Karen Shakhovskoy, from Queensland was onboard the cruise ship along with her husband Mark and their travel buddies, Peter and Julie Just, also from Queensland. And she told Cruise Passenger the experience hasn’t changed her plans to continue cruising again soon.

“This is all new to us. The virus is new to the whole world. We just have to deal with it, but I would definitely cruise again.”

One hundred and fifty passengers from Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess have been complying with coronavirus quarantine measures – both onboard the ship in Yokohama, Japan for 18 days, and for the past two weeks at a facility in Darwin – a total of 32 days.

Karen described the scene as extremely emotional as they were finally released from their two week stay at the Howard Springs camp in Darwin. But she said she and her fellow passengers felt overwhelming gratitude to the cruise line for the way they have been treated and the quarantine facility in Darwin – as well as the support they received in Japan before flying to Darwin.

In quarantine
Karen, in the black t-shirt underwent testing in Darwin

“Most people here are feeling pretty chilled and happy. Some people haven’t felt that way, but a majority of us feel that we very well cared for. The majority of us are all really happy and we feel extremely grateful and thankful,” she said.

Karen’s positivity comes despite the fact she and her fellow 150 travellers were subjected to strict security measures over the past four weeks, including being instructed to remain in her cabin for part of the journey while the outbreak over coronavirus continued to spread around the ship.

“It has been a big journey over the last four weeks. They were two very different experiences, one on the ship and then here in Darwin,” Karen told Cruise Passenger as she was exiting the facility. “The ship was initially quite confusing and we didn’t know what was happening. We were just told to go to our cabins.

“But I’d say the staff and crew on the ship were just amazing. And Mark and I were lucky, we had a cabin with a balcony. They were all amazing people. I really only felt frightened in the end, when I was waiting a few days for my test results,” she said, referring to the coronavirus tests the passengers were subjected to.

“But the ship’s Captain was phenomenal. He had such a sense of humour and I would say he is just an incredible man. He had real heart and soul. He’s actually a hero to me. He went above and beyond and kept our spirits up. I remember that while we were sitting off the coast (of Japan) half the ship was in shade which was quite depressing for the passengers with cabins on that side, so whenever he could, the captain would turn the ship so that all passengers had a moment in the sunshine.”

on the ship
Karen, left and her travel buddy Julie onboard the Diamond Princess

“Princess’ support was amazing. We had the biggest internet broadband happening with extra TV Channels. We had good WiFi so we could be in contact with our loved ones.

“We did exercises every day. We would wake up every morning with instructions for exercises. I feel like everything was very up-lifting… and emotional. My husband and I decided early on – that these things happen and you need to just stay positive. Surround yourself by people who are also positive. Stuff happens and you make the best of it.”

Daily exercises continued at the Howard Springs facility

Once the passengers were allowed to mingle again amongst themselves, Karen said that most guests and crew all bonded.

“We’ve definitely bonded with some people, because it was such a surreal experience. We were watching it on the news on the ship off Yokohama and thinking, how awful… and then we would remember that it was us they were talking about! I still feel that way, it’s still so surreal.””

“Getting off the ship was emotional. There were so many lovely people all waving to us – the Japanese included, so for me, I feel like no-one’s to blame.”

But despite the camaraderie amongst passengers on the ship, testing behind the scenes for further diagnoses of the deadly bug continued. The second part of the journey was a flight home to Australia onboard a Qantas flight from Japan to Darwin, where the passengers were sent directly to the specialty facility Howard Springs. Once they arrived into a camp-like facility, further testing was done.

“We landed in Darwin – I don’t remember a lot of the flight. But they had coffee and breakfast for us, books, puzzles and magazines. I felt like everyone was really prepared. The AUSMAT (Australian Medical Assistance Teams) at Howard Springs were volunteering their time. And it’s hot here – they were all working in their medical hazmat gear, fully covered from head to toe… they must have been so hot!”

Altogether eight passengers tested positive for coronavirus from the Howard Springs camp. Those who tested positive in the centre were medically transferred to their home states, and one man later died in Perth.

“We were finally tested on the Saturday night at the camp and waiting for that was traumatic. The results took two to three days to come back. It was so slow and felt like forever. That was the only time I felt stressed.

diamond princess
Karen’s photograph of media at the Wuhan dockyard

“I witnessed other passengers who were diagnosed and taken away in ambulances. I remember thinking ‘we are a science experiment now’ no matter what. We had these little wrist bands on to track us. My number was P3050, P standing for Prisoner!,” Karen joked.

“There were fences everywhere. The army was very present – and we were receiving loads of positive, uplifting and supportive emails, from family and friends and from Princess, keeping us up to date with what was happening.”

Karen says that her husband Mark and their travel companions have been friends for years before deciding to take the cruise together. The experience has given them more reason to continue their friendship – with a few good tales to tell from here forward. “The next 40 years is going to no doubt be a deep friendship.”

As Karen and Mark were leaving the facility, their travel plans were delayed. “We were supposed to catch a flight back to Brisbane this afternoon, but that has just been postponed. My brother was going to pick me up from the airport in Brisbane, but now it’ll be too late by the time we arrive. Our daughter said the same. But instead, we now need to fly to Sydney this afternoon and then get a connecting flight to Brisbane after that, so we will get home quite late tonight.”

When asked if this entire experience has changed her perspective on cruising, Karen was again surprisingly optimistic. ” No, it hasn’t put me off cruising one little bit! Absolutely, I would cruise again. Mark and I actually had another cruise booked for last Saturday that we were supposed to go on, but obviously, we had to cancel our booking for that one,” she said.

Princess Cruises staff were in Darwin to assist passengers with their departure yesterday. A spokeswoman for the cruise line told Cruise Passenger: “Our role here today is to support our guests with their journey home. It’s a privilege to help them with their journey home. It’s been an honour to meet many of the guests and we are happy to hear how overwhelmingly positive they’ve been with Princess’ support.”

going home
Friends for life, Karen and Mark, right and their travel buddies Peter and Julie Just

Princess Cruises have offered the following statement regarding the refunds and support for these affected passengers:

“Because of the extraordinary circumstances onboard Diamond Princess, the company is refunding the full cruise fare for all guests including air travel, hotel, ground transportation, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and other items. In addition, guests are not being charged for any onboard incidental charges during the additional time onboard. Princess Cruises will also provide guests with a future cruise credit equal to the cruise fare paid for the voyage.”