A Royal Caribbean Cruises executive says he was "blown away" by the quality and breadth of the educational opportunities offered by the Bahamas-based LJM Maritime Academy.
Russell Benford, one of the company's vice-presidents, described the facilities at the now-converted Coral World underwater observatory as "one of the best-kept secrets in the world".
The $30m LJM Maritime Academy, accessed by a one-lane bridge from Arawak Cay, sits on the grounds where the marine park and beach resort flourished before being devastated by Hurricane Floyd in the late 1990s. Its entrance, built to resemble the bow of a ship, hints at what is inside - an array of simulators, including a 270-degree full ship manoeuvering simulator, laboratories, navigational materials, historically important ship papers, printed and digital charts, and other rare documents.
"This must be one of the best-kept secrets in the world," said Mr Benford. "I am absolutely blown away." He indicated that the cruise line will seek ways to collaborate with the Academy.
The classrooms, fittings, equipment and simulators are targeted at every phase of maritime education imaginable - seamanship, engineering, navigation, operations and even a medical care station. A multi-storey "ship", with a full bridge allowing captain-to-engineer communication, was so realistic that Mr Benford described himself as "wowed" by its quality and authenticity.
"Twenty-five of our award-winning ships are registered in The Bahamas," said Mr Benford, who handles government relations for the Americas for the Miami-headquartered cruise company. "To know that a facility like this is here is just incredible. I can see so many opportunities."
Students spend three years with the LJM Maritime Academy, including one spent at sea. The first full graduating class will pass out in October.
"Careers in the maritime industry open a world of opportunities," said Dr Brendamae Cleare, a veteran mathematics educator and now president of LJM Maritime Academy. "Captains, pilots, engineers, stem to stern."
She was surprised to learn that Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean International's president and chief executive, started out working on a ship when he began his career with the giant cruise line in 1981.
LJM Maritime Academy, which was founded by a $30m grant from Nassau-based Campbell Shipping, had initially hoped to keep tuition fees for cadet officer training to $5,000 a year. Operational costs, though, forced them to raise that fee to $14,000 per year for two of the three-year programmes. One year is spent at sea. A four-month programme is also available for ratings candidates at a much lower cost.
Nearly 180 students have entered the Academy's programmes, which are audited regularly. They graduate with diplomas, many with careers lined up on bulk handlers, cargo container ships and cruise ships. For cadet officers, starting salaries will more than compensate for their education.
Nearly 40 students will graduate this year, 12 with fully-accredited credentials preparing them for high-paying jobs. Another 15 are completing their pre-sea training, with 11 finishing the ratings course. About one-third of all enrollees are female.
Lecturers come from as far away as Poland, Lithuania, Bangladesh and India. Some, like Tyrone Brown, wear several hats including as a firefighting instructor from Nassau. Firefighting drills are staged on a large ship-like structure made from 18 containers welded together. Drills are tough, the fire is real and the need to extinguish it is urgent.
Mr Benford said Royal Caribbean, which currently delivers 1.2 million guests a year to The Bahamas - and plans to increase that number to 1.75 million in the next two years - will explore ways to collaborate with LJM Maritime Academy. Its first partnership is likely to come when the academy hosts its second annual maritime conference in October.