It was one year ago that Somali pirates seized the tanker Maersk Alabama and then quickly paid the ultimate price – shot in the head by snipers – for their efforts. During what was a very busy year for piracy on the Indian Ocean that was the first time an American-operated ship had been seized. You might have thought its culmination, the killing of three of the four pirate/gunman holding 53-year-old Captain Richard Phillips would have given the pirates pause. (Phillips book about the incident – A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea – is just out.)
While 2009 was a busy year for the Somali pirates — 217 ships attacked between Yemen and Somalia, 47 seized for ransom, 867 crew members held hostage — 2010 is looking like a record-breaker.
I was in the Indian Ocean one year ago, during the height of the grabbings, researching a film, and was struck by just how blatant the pirates had become, straying a thousand miles off the coast of Somalia into the Seychelles Islands. I was also struck by the acceptance of piracy by most of the locals, starting with the very first exhibit you see inside the door of the state museum on the Seychelles island of Mahe, which traces the discovery of the region by pirates back six centuries. It’s a very poor corner of the world and a bit of Robin Hood-on-the-seas is apparently acceptable.
This January, a Greek oil tanker and its 28-member crew were freed for $5.5 million, the largest ransom yet paid to free a hijacked ship. In February, Ukrainians paid $3.2 million to free an arms freighter. During the last week of March eight ships were hijacked in three days. Last week pirates grabbed a 300,000-ton Korean super-tanker laden with $160 million worth of crude oil headed from Iraq to the U.S., which is now anchored off the coast of Somalia, its 24-crew hostage. Its owner is negotiating for its release right now. (The pirates are not infallible, of course: In mid-March a pair of skiffs mistakenly attacked a Dutch warship, confusing it with a cargo ship; they were chased down and caught, their weapons confiscated, and let go.) Private security guards aboard a merchant ship recently shot dead one of several attackers trying to seize the vessel. The killing was thought to have been the first involving private contractors – a now booming business for underemployed mercenaries whose Iraq contracts have expired.
“The pressures and the incentives for the pirates are so great and the risks are still so low,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Unless you get some solution on land, or cooperation from local authorities, this will just remain a problem that you can tamp down only occasionally.”
While I feel sorry for all the crew members still being held, the people I would most not want to be? The British couple in their 60s who were kidnapped last October between the Seychelles and Tanzania aboard their 38 foot sailboat, the Lynn RivaI. Held in separate camps onshore for the past six months, the pirates have lowered their ransom demand for the couple from about $9 million to $2 million; officials fear if someone doesn’t come up with the cash, militant Islamist groups may “buy” them to use as pawns.
One piece of good news? Somali pirates are reported to have donated a “large sum” to humanitarian aid in Haiti, post-earthquake.
My friend Dennis Cornejo reports that the ship he’s riding has successfully emerged on the upside of the Gulf of Aden. In the final 24 hours of its voyage they heard other ships calling over the radio for help; at the same time, closer to the Seychelles, an Italian ship carrying 1,000 passengers was attacked but its Israeli security team was able to repel the pirates. Thankfully during his six-day ride from Dar es Salaam to the Red Sea not a single pirate skiff or mother ship breached the horizon.
“Anxiety has given way to relief and high spirits and our lives are a bit more acute and focused, for awhile,” reports Dennis. “In what seems like a ‘world gone mad’ I think we have done a little bit to make it better, to take it back from those who would highjack it. With a plan both bold and brilliant we made a passage through what suddenly became some of the most dangerous waters in the world, without incident, without ever seeing a pirate. We did not do it on a dare or for glory, we did what we normally do — make a plan and be prepared, it is what you do at sea and what we should do in life.”
Pirate history is rich across the Indian Ocean, this was on La Digue in the Seychelles
Meanwhile, attacks continue, disrupting U.N. aid supplies, driving up insurance costs, demanding that ship owners consider arming crews and forcing some to consider routing cargo between Europe and Asia around South Africa instead. There is a great, inside look at the future of piracy, excerpted from Alex Perry’s “Falling Off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization,” at National Geographic Adventure’s site and a CBS video illustrating the efforts of international navies to help stem the current rise in attacks.
Last week the World Wildlife Fund released a report warning that blue fin tuna – one of the most popular fishes we know, especially among sushi lovers – will be completely fished out around the globe in the next three years. I read its report early in the day and later that night, floating off the coast of Mozambique, watched a stunning video with an Indian Ocean sailor and guide – Guy Esparon – showing in no uncertain terms exactly why tuna is not long for this ocean.
A Seychelles-born guide and naturalist who has sailed around the world on every imaginable craft and along the way become an adopted-son of the aboriginals in western Australia, Guy is truly a man of the sea. I watched his eyes well up as the video images played, of half-ton tuna being snared in one-mile-long, 600-foot tall nets strung behind seiners. Millions of tons of blue fin are taken each year from the Indian Ocean alone, generating $700 million. It’s big business, but one that would now seem to be short-lived if the WWF predictions are correct.
Here’s the reports conclusion: “Over fishing will wipe out the breeding population of Atlantic blue fin tuna, one of the ocean’s largest and fastest predators, in three years unless catches are dramatically reduced.” The report was released on the eve of the European fishing fleets starting the two-month Mediterranean season.
“For years people have been asking when the collapse of this fishery will happen, and now we have the answer,” said Sergi Tudela, Head of Fisheries at WWF Mediterranean. The fish, which can accelerate faster than a sports car, are a favorite of sushi lovers. Demand from Japan has triggered an explosion in the size of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean fleets over the past decade and many of those boats use illegal spotter planes to track the warm-blooded tuna.
“Blue fin tuna is collapsing as we speak and yet the fishery will kick off again for business as usual. It is absurd and inexcusable to open a fishing season when stocks of the target species are collapsing,” added Tudela.
The WWF report cited data showing the average size of mature tunas has more than halved since the 1990s, which has had a disproportionately high impact since bigger fish produced many more offspring. It concludes that the only way the blue fin can be saved is by a complete halt to fishing in May and June as the fish rush through the Straits of Gibraltar to spawn in the Mediterranean.
Standing at the edge of the Indian Ocean with Guy on a dark, dark night it’s hard to imagine the last blue fin may soon be caught, perhaps not far from where we stand. But it won’t be too surprising if it happens. We are a rapacious species, with an increasingly heavy demand for fish of all stripes. While it would be sad if the blue fin were wiped out, it will not come as a big surprise. And it won’t be the last fish species to disappear in our lifetime.
It is with great privilege and no small amount of humility that I spend as many days as I can on remote, uninhabited atolls. This Sunday morning it is in the Alphonse group of the Seychelles – south of the main granite islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue – and is called St. Francois. Shaped like a broken piece of coral, with several small fingers jutting northwards, it is just two miles around. But the lagoon that surrounds, outlined by a sharp reef, is a sizable nine by three miles.
St. Francois atoll
Two facts of nature here in mid-April warrant an early morning exploration of the island: high heat and low tides. By nine it will be over 90 degrees F and humid, the lagoon covered by just a shallow, warm sea.
At seven, when much of the world is contemplating miraculous ascensions and chocolate egg hunts, I am communing with hermit crabs. I’ve never seen such a huge population (though it’s rivaled by a small island off Peru we visited last fall, which had a more intense concentration but nowhere near the volume). Every shell on the beach has been converted into a mobile home, from fingernail sized round shells to the long and conical to big, mossy, partially busted. There are easily fifty quick-moving hermies per square foot trundling shells of every size, shape and color. There does seem to be some weird segregation going on; though admittedly purely empirical it looks on parts of the beach that white shelled crabs mingle only with other white shelled crabs and that in other parts, moss-backed green shells hang only with their own kind.
It’s possible that Sunday morning is moving day too, because we saw an inordinate amount of “house hunting” going on; big red hermit crabs having grown out of their existing shells looking for, and fighting over, bigger, empty versions. Something resembling a Manhattan condo open during headier real estate times.
By eight, it’s too hot not to be in the water, though it’s almost 90 degrees too. While the plunge is not exactly refreshing it’s an absolute necessity. Swimming alongside are a solitary hawksbill turtle and dozens of bonefish being chased by big jack fish. This lagoon is a Mecca for fly fishermen in pursuit of glassine-tinted bonefish, but never a paradise for boaters given the mean reef rimming the lagoon. From shore three big metal hulls rust where they ran aground decades before. It’s certain that this beach on an otherwise uninhabited island has been home over the centuries to a variety of shipwrecked sailors. I wonder if their ghosts still roam here?
It’s important on luxurious days like today – far from land, away from civilization, alone on an uninhabited island – to stop and listen. My aural memories of remote corners are as powerful as the visuals I carry in my head. This morning it is the far-off crash of waves on the reef; the gentle wash on sand as they lap onto the beach; and the distinct clicking of dry palm fronds rubbing together, blown by a hot breeze. (The most distinct sound I took away from yesterday was on yet another pristine sand beach, on D’Arros Island, where hundreds of frigate birds nested in tall, beachside palms. As they swooped just overhead on the way to feeding it was possible to hear only the flap of wings as they whooshed by.)
By nine, the tide is running out fast through the lagoon’s main pass, requiring a slow kick and swim to reach the reef edge. Floating on my back in the now hot, two-foot deep Indian Ocean, a last ditch attempt to cool off, I am surprised by another great sound, the whiz of a flying fish as it zips out of the water and past my head. Which if it isn’t a good-luck sign, I’m making it one.
I often ask audiences to define paradise. While responses vary, a high percentage involves some combination of white sand beach, coconut palm and blue-blue sea scenario. It’s so pervasive I’ve long been curious where the notion first originated. Honeymoon brochure? 1940s movie? Similarly, as I travel and explore I keep running into places touted as “paradise on earth.”
A couple islands in the Seychelles make that list, dating back to the mid-1700s when one of the first visitors to Praslin, Charles (Chinese) Gordon, went away convinced he had seen the site of the original Garden of Eden. Having spent yesterday – a gray, humid day – exploring it and nearby La Digue, it’s clear how legends get started.
When Asia split off and drifted away from Africa, breaking up what 160 million years or so ago was the single continent of Gondwanaland, it left in its trail a couple hundred granite “droppings” scattered across what we now know as the Indian Ocean. This makes the Seychelles different from most island groups around the world, which are volcanic. The Seychelles are remnants of continental drift. Characterized by boulder-covered hills and hard mountains as high as 2,700 feet above sea level they are surrounded by narrow coastal plains and extensive coral reefs.
Out of the 115 islands in the group, 42 are granite; the rest are made up of coral and washed-up rubble. While they are chock full of endemic wildlife, the people here are all immigrants; there were no indigenous Seychellois, everyone came from someplace else beginning with pirates in the 15th century. From a wildlife perspective, they are among the most protected on the planet thanks to a 1993 law guaranteeing its people the right to a clean environment. As a result the country holds a record for the highest percentage of land under natural conservation, nearly fifty percent.
Of the 75 endemic plants here, the most famed is the coco de mer. The trees grow for 200 to 400 years. The male fruits are long and slender, while the female fruits often weigh upwards of forty pounds, are the world’s largest seed and are nicknamed the “love nut” due to their suggestive shape. They got their name from Maldivians, a thousand miles away. When the nuts washed up onshore those faraway locals were convinced they must have come from underneath the water, thus “coco from the sea.” I asked my guide Marianne if anyone ever gets hit by falling, forty-five pound coconuts, which would definitely addle you, and she smiles. “The only time people get hit is at night. Because the male coconut and female coconut are love making then and sometimes they fall.”
I spent the morning in the beautiful Vallee de Mai, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1972, packed with the tall trees. Dark and humid under its canopy, the forest has a primeval feel and is a natural greenhouse fostering tall palms of a half-dozen varieties, as well as jackfruit, kapisen, ferns, vanilla and philodendron. The wet and dark also nurtures endemic black parrots and blue pigeons, kestrel and swiftlets, fruit bats, geckos, tree frogs, skinks and rare chameleons, sizable snails, slugs and freshwater crabs. Standing next to twenty-foot tall palm leaves with lizards scampering over my feet it all feels very … prehistoric.
Twenty minutes away by local ferry is La Digue. The fourth largest island in the Seychelles means it is not very big, just three miles by two, home to 2,500 people. From a coastal plateau it culminates in the Nid Aigle (Eagle’s Nest) a thousand feet above the sea. But few come to La Digue for its heights but rather for its meandering boulder-strewn beach – Anse Source D’Argent – which is invariably included on every “best beach” list ever published.
I bike to the end of the island and then pick my way along the beach as the sun sets, scrambling around gigantic granite boulders curved by time and weather tumbling into the sea, sloshing from small crescent beach to small crescent beach of talcum powder pink sand, barely cooled off by plunging into the thirty degree Celsius waters. I keep my eyes open for a sign directing me to the Garden of Eden, but instead discover only a corral of thirty giant, one-hundred-year-old tortoises. By day’s end rather than Eden, I’m beginning to wonder if the place didn’t share roots with “Jurassic Park.”
Five a.m. on the Indian Ocean, a quarter mile off the small granite island of La Digue. Daylight is still an hour away, the sea flat and quiet, still too early for the call of morning birds and too dark for pirates.
And pirates are on everyone’s minds and lips here. Just the day before Somali pirates grabbed a tuna boat with a crew of 29 just to the north of where we motor, near Denis Island. A few days before they had taken a commercial dive boat and before that a private sailboat. Apparently being thwarted in waters closer to home – the Seychelles are easily six hundred miles from the coast of Somalia – due to an increase in navy ships patrolling, the brash pirates have headed here for new booty.
Walking the hot-hot streets of the capital of Mahe yesterday it was hard to avoid the subject. Headlines in the daily “Nation” claim “Piracy at Top of President’s Agenda.” Lunch of garlic prawns is at the Pirate Arms (right next to the Pirate Arms Shopping Complex). On the docks, fishermen tell me they’re not going out to sea, for risk of being hijacked for ransom. In the Museum of Natural History literally the first exhibit in the door tells the story of the Seychelles’ very first residents: Pirates. From sometime in the 15th century to 1730, these islands were the hideaway of some of the most notorious, most famously the celebrated Olivier Le Vasseur, alias “La Buze,” who was said to have been the best of the best, or the worst of the worst, dependent on your take on pirates.
Last week I was a thousand miles to the east in the Maldives; I’ve come here to continue exploring the boundaries of what was once called the Sea of Zanj. Who knew that the news-garnering Somali pirates would show up at the same time?
Here, quickly, are a few things I know about the Seychelles, other than their pirate history: A 115 island archipelago, a mix of granite islands and coral cays, stretched over 700 miles (all its land combined makes the entire chain about twice the size of Washington D.C.). Arab traders were most likely the first to spy them; officially Portuguese Admiral Vasca da Gama first recorded them, in 1502. A former French and British colony, the country has been independent since June 29, 1976 and boasts the smallest population of any African state. Independence brought a 30-plus-year dictatorship, endemic corruption, and a thriving black market and near bankruptcy; only a recent IMF emergency loan kept it from sinking.
The economy is based on the twin Ts: Tourism and Tuna. A world leader in sustainable tourism, more than fifty percent of the island nation is nature conservancy. As the sun begins to glow along that line where blue meets blue, it reveals a smattering of tall green islands, rimmed by boulder strewn and white sand beaches.
By the end of the day yesterday there were rumors on the streets of Mahe that a French navy ship had attacked and freed the Taiwanese tuna ship and its crew; rumor also has it that a U.S. military ship is on the way from patrolling near the Gulf of Aden.
In the last few weeks the Somali pirates have roamed far from their own coastline, moving south and east to the Seychelles and Comoros Islands, where there are no international naval patrols. They want bigger, more expensive ships to hold for ransom and tuna boats to use as “mother ships” to town their speedboats. These are not all rag-tag independents; there’s talk of a “pirate mafia” and suggestions that one reason they’ve come to the Seychelles is to distract its Navy thus making sneaking drugs into the country easier. The pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues; their speedboats are equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment and they are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades.
At the moment a total of 14 vessels and about 200 crew members are currently under their control, despite increased patrolling by warships from China, the U.S., France and India. They are gambling that warships will not be sent this far south. The fact that the seas have been calm has allowed them to roam too and they have come back in force, seizing five boats in a 72-hour period from Somalia to the Seychelles.
“We’re going to end up probably playing a cat-and-mouse game in the next six months,” said Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of the British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd.
From where I sit this morning, looking one hundred eighty degrees over a calm sea, it looks like a very, very big arena for playing games.