One overlooked impact of the Indian Ocean piracy boom has been the inability of scientists to roam far and wide doing their thing; in this case, gathering data for climate change research and weather forecasting.
Photo: Ho New/Reuters
With attacks by pirates, especially near the Somali coast, more than doubled since 2008 it has become increasingly tricky for oceanographers and meteorologists to deploy measuring tools. Research ships report having been chased by pirates on numerous occasions. “We don’t like putting scientists at risk like that,” says Ann Thresher of the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s lead science agency.
With more than one-quarter to one-half of the Indian Ocean currently regarded as a “no go” zone, scientists are increasingly asking military ships deployed in the region—from the U.S. and Australian Navies—to help by dropping robotic floats in the danger zone. Of course, given the assignment of the naval ships—deterring and chasing pirates—it is difficult to get them to follow exact scientific routes, so the quality of information being gathered may suffer.
The ask is for the Navies to not just deploy, but monitor—i.e. protect—and retrieve the scientific tools. What are they measuring? Real-time stats on temperature, winds, currents, evaporation and more, which Australian scientists say are crucial to understanding and predicting weather back home. One major preoccupation is trying to predict monsoons and other storms, and rainfall, which is of special interest to a continent that since 2003 has endured the worst droughts on record.
Thanks partly to an increase in naval presence patrolling the coast of East Africa—ships from the EU, NATO, Russia, China, Iran, Japan and India—the mostly Somali pirates have expanded their territories east and south into the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. A March 2010 attack on a Turkish cargo ship occurred 1,100 miles offshore, closer to India than Africa, suggesting that the “no go” zone for science—and shipping and sailors—may continue to grow before it shrinks.
(For the rest of my dispathes go to takepart.com)
It’s been 74 days since a sailboat carrying seven Danes—four adults and three children—was seized by Somali pirates. The pirates, family members and reps of the Danish government have all talked ransom, but the two sides appear to be far apart.
The pirates are reported to be asking $5 million; reports suggest relatives of the kidnapped have offered between $600,000 and $1.3 million.
“This is not what we expected,” a pirate named Isse told the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet. “We expected negotiations to start in the millions. Our patience does not last forever.”
The BBC’s Tom Mangold reports that the pirates would consider letting the family go if the family would betroth their 13-year-old daughter to a pirate chief.
A pirate spokesman (pirates actually have spokesmen!) says two of the hostages—mother and daughter—are sick and asking for a doctor, which is being denied. The girl is said to be feverish, unable to eat or drink; her mother has broken out in a rash. The family is being held in a cabin aboard the Greek-owned cargo ship MV Dover, which was seized the same day as the sailboat, February 28, 2011.
Currently more than 800 hostages are being held by Somali pirates. Most are crewmembers from developing nations who’ve been taken off various cargo ships. None of their family members are able to come up with ransom money, nor even asked to. The captives sit and rot in makeshift desert holding tanks.
Mangold’s BBC report referenced a “pirate stock exchange,” which is helping finance the plundering and hostage-taking. Onshore “investors” put money into different gangs and are paid dividends if and when ransoms are paid.
The enterprise has the potential to be quite lucrative. In 2010, various companies paid $238 million in ransoms. To-date the biggest single ransom paid is $11 million for the U.S.-bound supertanker Irene, which was carrying $200 million worth of oil when it was seized off the coast of Oman in early February 2011.
“The ransoms fuel the business; the business invests in more capability—either in a bigger boat, more weapons, better electronic-detection means to determine where the ships are,” U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead told Bloomberg.
Despite the efforts of representatives from 60 nations and a multinational task force of navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden, the loose-knit gangs of ungoverned Somalis appear to have a winning business model. The average ransom has risen 36 times to $5.4 million last year, compared with $150,000 in 2005.
The first quarter of 2011 saw 124 pirate attacks, more than any year since 1991, the year statistics started being kept. So far, 2011′s attacks have netted 344 hostages and killed seven.
One countermeasure under consideration is to sink all pirate mother ships on sight, even those carrying hostages.
That plan can’t be comfortable for the captive Danes. They may be pining their hopes on the example of husband-and-wife British sailors Paul and Ruth Chandler. The Chandlers paid a ransom of around $1 million and were released after 388 days.
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)
n a characteristic move last week, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took its ship the Steve Irwin—proudly waving its skull-and-crossbones pirate flag—straight into the heart of real pirate waters.
Photo: STR New/Reuters
While conservation groups regard the Shepherds as rebels and outsiders, going to extremist lengths, happy to obstruct and lob stink bombs onto predator vessels to protect whales, dolphins, baby seals, tuna and more … to-date, the organization has not actually engaged in real piracy, i.e. boat-seizing, hostage-taking and gunfire.
But last week, the usually all-black Steve Irwin was painted in green camo, with a giant “77” on its bow—representing 1977, the year the organization was founded
“We looked like a Navy ship,” spokeswoman Tiffany Humphrey tells me. In its naval disguise, the Shepherd boat crossed the northern Indian Ocean, transited the Gulf of Aden and sailed into the Red Sea, through waters Somali pirates have turned into “the most dangerous” on the planet.
“A few [real] pirates came and looked,” says Humphrey. Apparently, the “official” look of the environmentalist’s boat gave the marauders pause. Three separate skiffs with a half-dozen men in each approached the ship, tailed it for a few miles, but kept a distance. As well as the new paint job, the ship was ringed with barbed wire and 4-foot steel spikes. The on-watch crew manned water cannons and “imitation” weapons.
The ship’s new look apparently confused some real navies as well. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter buzzed the ship, thinking it to be a Dutch warship.
Humphrey reports that the camo look will stick during the ship’s upcoming season in the Mediterranean Sea (dubbed “Operation Blue Rage II”). Starting on June 1, Operation Blue Rage II will attempt to stop bluefin tuna catching off the coast of Libya. “It’s too hot in the Med for our usual black,” says Humphrey.
In related news, the Shepherd’s website suggests that Japanese whalers may not return to the Southern Ocean for their annual hunt (November to March) due to loss of government funding.
In large part due to the ballooning costs of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear leakage, the government in Tokyo has announced massive budget cuts, including “child support, senior citizen support and pensions, and infrastructure repairs and maintenance.”
But the non-profit Sea Shepherds insist that if whalers do return to Antarctica next November, interceptor boats will be there waiting.
“There have been a few critics who have been advising us to lay off Japan because of the recent disasters,” reports the Shepherd website. “The point is that Sea Shepherd interventions are not targeting the Japanese people. We are addressing unlawful activities—whale poachers in an area far from Japan, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where whales are supposedly protected by law.”
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ill-advised risks private boats take by venturing into pirate-heavy parts of the Indian Ocean. Every new killing and hostage-taking puts more people at risk, and not for reasons of national security or economic necessity. It’s a big world … why not stay out of “the most dangerous waters on the planet,” unless sailing them is absolutely necessary?
A quick response came from my friend Roz Savage, who is about to set off by 21-foot rowboat to cross a section of … the Indian Ocean. This is the fourth leg—out of five—of a seven-year adventure that will take Savage around the globe solo and self-propelled.
“The pirates are ranging up to 1,300 miles from the Somali coast, which covers a large swath of the Indian Ocean, but by no means all of it,” she wrote. “About 75 percent of the Indian Ocean is as yet untouched by piracy. I am all in favour of mitigating the risks involved in adventuring, but we need to get the right balance between sensible caution and over-reaction. These opportunistic pirates are already causing enough trouble. Let’s not give them more power than they merit.”
Fair point. But when Savage departs from Freemantle, Australia, Tuesday, April 12, her destination will be kept hush-hush, out of respect for the pirates.
Initially, her goal was to cross the entirety of the Indian Ocean, east to west, landing somewhere along the coast of Africa. To avoid ramped-up pirate activity, the end-point was switched to Mumbai. Now, she won’t say where she’s intending to make port. Unlike previous rows, global satellite tracking will not be posting daily locations at her website.
Here’s what she wrote to me a week ago: “I had an interesting meeting with the Australian maritime authorities yesterday. A pirate attack was reported further out into the Indian Ocean, closer to their territory, just a day or so ago. So you are quite right to urge caution.
“I just hope that NOT having a big white sail advertising my presence will stand me in good stead….”
To date, the former management consultant has covered about 11,000 miles of ocean by oar, crossing the Atlantic in 2005-2006 in 103 days, then across the Pacific in two stints (San Francisco to Hawaii in 99 days and Hawaii to Kiribati in 104 days) Once successful across part of the Indian Ocean, the final leg—New York City to London—is scheduled for 2012.
Some highlights from recent Q&As with Roz as she prepared her boat, the Sedna, in Freemantle:
What fuels you when you’re all alone out on a big ocean with just your boat and oars?
I can’t lie—I find it very challenging being out on the ocean. It’s not my natural habitat. It has its moments of beauty—the stars, the sea creatures, the sunrises and sunsets, and of course the moments of accomplishment—but generally it’s uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst.
But the ocean has been an incredible teacher. I’ve discovered resources within myself I never would have known existed if I hadn’t taken this leap of faith.
What is the single strongest lesson the open ocean offers an individual soul?
I am all too aware that I get no special privileges just because I am a human. Out there, I am just another animal, and subject to the laws of nature.
When I was rowing my first ocean, the Atlantic, I kept wondering why it was being so mean to me. I was (I thought) a good person doing the right thing for the right reasons. So why was it making my life so difficult? That year, 2005, was officially the worst year ever for weather in the Atlantic, including Hurricane Katrina. In the rough conditions, all four of my oars broke, I got tendinitis in my shoulders, and the 103 days of the crossing were mostly uncomfortable, and sometimes downright dangerous.
Ultimately, I learned not to take it personally. Nature does not make moral judgments—on me individually or on all of us collectively. Our continued existence as a species does not depend on whether we “deserve” to survive in a moral sense, but rather a practical, scientific sense. Given what we have done to our only planet, is human life sustainable in the long term? Time will tell, but big brains and opposing thumbs won’t help us much if we have poisoned our ecosphere beyond what our bodies can adapt to.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Should Americans be concerned by suggestions that terrorists have taken cues from the Somali pirates and will be hijacking ships across the Indian Ocean for reasons beyond ransom?
Increasing evidence links the mafia-like Somali clans that run the pirating to the Al-Shabaab Islamist insurgent group, which controls most of southern and central Somalia. Both the U.S. and the U.N. accuse Al-Shabaab of having links to al-Qaeda.
The rag-tag pirates who are grabbing small private yachts and cargo boats loaded with lawn tractors may be providing a working model for terrorists interested in hijacking tankers loaded with chemicals and cargo boats carrying weapons.
The pirates’ increasingly brazen successes can only be encouraging to others hoping to follow suit.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Eleuthera, Bahamas – The late 1600s and early 1700s were the golden age of pirates here, led by Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard), who wove hemp into his beard and kept it smoldering during battles; Calico Jack, who favored striped coats and pants and nurtured the careers of the most famous women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read; and Sir Henry Morgan. As the Caribbean islands changed hands among the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and U.S., pirates were often hired to “police” them by faraway governments with their hands full back home.
While Somali pirates seem bold today — grabbing private sailboats and killing all onboard, not hesitating to kidnap women and children, and yesterday making a run at an American cargo boat, the Maersk Alabama, for the third time – they are legacy of a long history.
Ships commanded by pirates first explored the entirety of the Indian Ocean, from Persia to the tip of Africa. The same waters the Somali’s operate in today were dominated by pirates in 694 BC, when Assyrian king Sennacherib grew so fatigued with them attacking his ships heavy with gold, silver, spices, copper and teak that he went to war against them. Roman emperors were hassled by the same headache while simultaneously the Mediterranean was home to pirates from Turkey to Greece.
Taking hostages has always been part of the game: In 78 BC a young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates and held for six weeks, until a ransom was paid. Two years later, in Pompeii, laws were passed to “stamp out” piracy, which never quite took hold. In 1575 pirates operating out of Tunis and Algiers grabbed of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, and his brother Rodrigo and held them for five years. It took American President Thomas Jefferson sending his Navy to war, in 1801, against Tripoli-based pirates to stop open-sea hijackings … until the Somali’s emerged a few years ago.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)