Cruise ship returning to N.J. after passengers sickened

A cruise ship is returning early to New Jersey after hundreds of passengers became ill while on board.

Royal Caribbean International said the Explorer of the Seas will return from the 10-day trip two days early after an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 577 of 3,050 passengers and 49 and of the 1,165 crew members reported becoming ill during the cruise, which departed from Cape Liberty, N.J., on Jan. 21.

Royal Caribbean said the symptoms are consistent with norovirus, but additional testing is being done.

"We think the right thing to do is to bring our guests home early, and use the extra time to sanitize the ship even more thoroughly," the company said in a statement. "We are sorry for disappointing our guests, and we are taking several steps to compensate them for their inconvenience."

Officials say extra crew members were flown in to assist with sanitation efforts, and a CDC epidemiologist boarded the ship Sunday to investigate and collect additional specimans for testing.

After the ship returns to New Jersey on Wednesday, Royal Caribbean said, it will undergo an aggressive sanitation program to remove all traces of the illness. It will be the ship's third sanitation treatment since officials learned of the outbreak.

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or Follow @phillynews on Twitter.