Skull and crossbones buccaneers have resurfaced with "Terminator"-style tactics, shining a spotlight on an age-old crime that some experts warn could inspire terrorists.
The Carnival-owned cruise liner Seabourn Spirit recently fended off a pirate attack along Africa's eastern coast, with one person sustaining injuries. The attempt to hijack a cruise ship highlights the pirates' growing audacity -- wielding rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, the pirates off of Somalia's coast have stolen some of the fairy-tale glamour of yesteryear's high sea thieves.
"Modern-day piracy is not Johnny Depp-inspired characters with an eye patch," said John Burnett, author of "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas." Referring to the popular swashbuckling, charcoaled-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean," Burnett warns that 21st-century pirates plague many parts of the world and are better armed, and more brutal.
Forget about muggings at sea, pirates want the full loot, regardless of casualties, he said.
Since March, 29 attacks have occurred off the coast of Somalia, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Although this was the first attack on a cruise ship in more than a decade, pirates attacked 205 ships in the first nine months of 2005 compared with 251 in the same period a year ago, according to the IMB's Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Report.
"Although the decline in the number of attacks has decreased, some key hot spots have deteriorated like off the coast of Somalia," said Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the IMB, explaining that since the early '90s, crime on the high seas has resurfaced.
Indonesian waters pose the greatest danger with 61 incidents in the first nine months of 2005 and a total of 93 attacks reported in 2004, according to the IMB. Hot spots around the world include the Malacca Straits (between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra) followed by Nigeria, Bangladesh, Iraq and the northeastern coast of South America.
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And despite the falling numbers, the attacks have been more fatal. Pirates killed 30 crew members in 2004, up from 21 a year earlier.
Pirates usually work in bands but go after different targets, said Abhyankar. Some will go after any boat -- a yacht, a cruise liner or a barge -- hoping to find some good loot like the sea-faring guerrillas in Somalia. Some will hijack ships simply for the cargo while others will attack a boat to kidnap the crew in the hopes of a hefty ransom. Boats represent "easy pickings," especially off the coast of lawless countries like Somalia or in places where maritime security is weak, he said.
Terrorism on the High Seas?
Burnett commends the Seabourn's brilliant seamanship and the cruise lines' long track record of safety at sea but fears that piracy will become a terrorist tool. "When terrorists learn to hijack, kidnap passengers and crew, they will probably get involved," he said.
Merchant vessels represent an even easier target since they chug along slowly, lugging more than 95 percent of the world's goods. "The global economy could come to a screeching halt if you close off the world's choke points like the Malacca Strait," Burnett said. The strait connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the shortest sea route to Asian countries.
Shipping experts agree that the Seabourn incident is a wake-up call to all sailors and non-sailors.
"Most efforts to control piracy is Band-Aid stuff," said Burnett. He and others hope that the IMB, along with the United Nation's International Maritime Organization, can convince the United Nations Security Council to take action.
Despite the global decline in reported pirate attacks, he believes the number of attacks probably stands more in the ballpark of 2,000 a year versus IMB's number of 205. "It's not just about bad press or about keeping insurance premiums low, it's mostly about cost," Burnett said. It costs $20,000 to $50,000 a day to run a ship, making all stops -- even for an investigation -- expensive, lost time, he said.
That's why Unitel, a maritime security firm, recommends that all ships have armed security personnel on board or have an armed escort in power boats.
"A bank doesn't transport money without armed guards or an armored car, why should boats not be able to protect themselves?" said Unitel security adviser William Callahan.
The IMB says armed guards pose more of a risk than a safeguard. In addition, countries don't want to have foreigners impeding on their sovereign territory. And if ships are transporting volatile cargo like oil, a gunshot could lead to an explosive situation.
Armed escorts might be the better solution, but Burnett points out that securing every ship is a Herculean feat that would blow shipping costs out of the water.
Still Safe to Cruise?
So does that mean you shouldn't book a "Love Boat" cruise?
"I would take a cruise but just not in pirate territory," Burnett said. He recommends Hawaii, Alaska and yes, the Caribbean.
"Cruising is the safest way to travel and there is no reason why that is not the case today," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines.
He stressed that cruise ships screen all of their passengers and their belongings. In addition, all ships have up to 20 trained security officers on board at all times and boats have surveillance cameras and high-tech communication as well as non-lethal weapons to thwart attacks.
"The fact that this ship [Seabourn Spirit] was able to safely deliver its passengers to a safe port demonstrates the effectiveness of the security plans and countermeasures," Crye said.
In Seabourn's case, the captain out-navigated the pirates and used a parabolic audio device, a "boom box" that emits an ear-splitting sound, to ward off the attackers. Regardless, the captain was about 100 miles offshore despite IMB's warning to stay 200 miles away from the coast.
Crye said the cruise ship industry heeds the IMB's sea warnings and meets every two months with different intelligence agencies to review its security plans, and map out new cruise itineraries.