Science Under Siege

Pirates and Politics Encroach on Ocean Research

The usual morning pleasantries aboard R/V Maurice Ewing were swept away by talk of a suspicious boat that had been lingering nearby. Chief Scientist Amy Bower and colleagues watched as the small craft sped closer, its passengers gesturing and shouting. When gunshots buzzed past Ewing, the captain gave the order: Go to your cabins and lock your doors.

The ship was 18 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, on an oceanographic expedition called “REDSOX,” the Red Sea Outflow Experiment. Before Ewing ever left port, Bower and the science team had gone through security training and hypothetical discussions about conducting research in a dangerous part of the world. But as a shipmate looked through a porthole and described a rocket-propelled grenade skipping across the water toward the ship, Bower realized that no amount of training could have prepared her for being under real fire.

“I was nervous for my safety, wondering if a grenade was going to fly through my ceiling,” Bower said. “I was also thinking about how devastated I'd be if someone got hurt on this cruise. How was this going to end?”

Ewing steamed away from the coast of Somalia and the attackers at 14 knots. An hour later, the captain gave the all-clear sign. The grenades and gunshots on August 31, 2001, did not damage Ewing, but they did shake up its crew and their research.

Bower conferred with the captain, Ewing’s operators at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and National Science Foundation (NSF) officials. The expedition could continue, but the ship was ordered to remain 30 to 50 miles from the coasts of Somalia and Yemen.

“It never crossed my mind to quit,” says Bower, a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The science team revised its plans. The oceanic region they wanted to investigate was compromised and their morale suffered, but the expedition carried on.

“Ship time is very expensive,” Bower says, “and we knew that this would probably be the last cruise in this area for many years.”

X Marks the Hazardous Spots
For oceanographic research, the Ewing incident was a cannon shot across the bow.

“Prior to the attempted attack on the R/V Ewing and prior to September 11, 2001, many of us had a limited and unduly rosy notion of the extent or viciousness of piracy in the modern world, and none of us imagined the kind of suicidal terrorism directed at US entities,” says Bob Knox, chair of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), the organization that coordinates the US oceanographic research fleet.

UNOLS, NSF, and other agencies are adjusting their research plans for a tumultuous new era. More than 1,100 incidents of piracy have been reported worldwide since 1999, and more than 100 sailors have been killed, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Incidents run the gamut from petty theft by disorganized rogues to coordinated hijackings of cargoes and entire ships.

The majority of those attacks have occurred off the coasts of Southeast Asia, the east and west coasts of Africa, and South America. In these waters, commercial traffic is thick, law enforcement is lax, and land is never far, making it easier to work in small, cheap, and fast boats. The tools have changed—swords have been traded for AK-47s, and swashbuckling has given way to grenade launching. But the fundamental premise-boarding a ship with the intent to commit theft or garner a ransom-has not really changed.

Just months before the August 2001 REDSOX cruise, terrorists had bombed USS Cole in the port of Aden; just weeks before, a band of pirates captured a fishing vessel off the Somali coast and held the crew for ransom. And on the same day that Ewing was attacked, a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden was accosted by four boats full of modern-day buccaneers. As recently as April 2002, the US Navy oiler Walter S. Diehl fired its 50-caliber machine guns against a half-dozen powerboats that approached as the ship passed through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

In a report from IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, officials noted, “the chief weapons of these modern pirates are speed and surprise.” Ships that decrease their speed while navigating narrow channels or rest at anchor near a port are especially vulnerable. That can make a scientific research vessel—whether setting a mooring, drilling the seafloor, or operating a submersible—an easy target, if not a profitable one.

Dangerous Ground
Jian Lin knows something about being an easy target. In February 1999, the WHOI geologist was aboard JOIDES Resolution during a cruise of the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). The ship had to sail through the treacherous Sunda and Karimata Straits near Java, the site of hundreds of pirate attacks in the past decade.

Resolution doesn’t have the power to outrun most pirate vessels,” Lin notes, and the 469-foot ship is immobile while drilling. “Our captain refused to enter the South China Sea unless we got an escort.” Thanks to the intercessions of Chinese-speaking scientists on the cruise, the Chinese navy loosely escorted Resolution to its appropriately named drilling site, the Dangerous Ground (so named on Admiralty charts because it is poorly charted territory with many reefs and shallows).

The captain also “held a meeting with the entire scientific team, and we conducted a few drills on what to do if pirates boarded the ship,” Lin says. The ship’s crew was instructed in how to aim searchlights and keep the ship well lit, how to improve night watches (when most attacks occur), how to repel boarders with fire hoses, and how to use radios and hand signals. But the ultimate guidance for scientists and sailors alike was to give armed attackers what they wanted.

The cruise was further complicated by the politics of the South China Sea. The governments of the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all assert territorial rights to the areas around the Dangerous Ground, so planning the mission required approval from all four. But that did not necessarily release all political tension. While transiting to a drill site in daylight, Resolution witnessed a several-hour standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese navy ships keeping an eye on the science cruise.

Pirates and Politics
WHOI physical oceanographer Glen Gawarkiewicz had similar experiences during a collaborative research cruise in 2001 in the South China Sea. He worked with colleagues from National Taiwan University to study ocean currents and temperature fields at the edge of the continental shelf near China.

“The threat of piracy affected our planning,” Gawarkiewicz notes. During a previous cruise in the program, his Taiwanese colleagues had been harassed and boarded by rogue fishermen. “Ships are nearly immobile when a CTD is down in the water, and the casts go on for hours, so we are really vulnerable at those times. We were wondering if our equipment would be stolen. After all, a $4,000 laptop is compelling when you make $100 a month.”

Political events also caused the entire research cruise to be conducted under “high alert.” A few months before the cruise, Chen Shui-bian of the Taiwan Independence Party was elected president, escalating tensions between China and Taiwan. And just days before the cruise, a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, sending the jet into the sea and forcing the US craft to make an emergency landing in China.

“We were on a foreign ship, and we were not going to be the decision makers,” says Gawarkiewicz of those tense days. “People on the ship were aware of the risks, but we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t want to think about it. It’s already hard enough to work at sea. People just tried to keep a mentally tough mindset.”

Damn the Torpedoes
Before the Ewing incident, there was not a lot of precedent for how to handle a pirate attack. Now, ship operators and funding agencies are working on guidelines and strategies to protect the fleet and to keep the research going.

“There are several things we can do,” notes Joe Coburn, WHOI’s ship operations manager. “We train the crews in how to recognize and respond to threats. We can adjust the ship schedules so as not to be predictable, or to travel in daylight.” New UNOLS guidance also recommends much tighter control of access to the ship while in port.

In the case of the REDSOX program-which was actually a two-part series of cruises, in March and August 2001-WHOI chose to hire former US Navy Seals as security consultants for the first leg on R/V Knorr. The consultants trained the crew and the science team before leaving port, then sailed with them and kept round-the-clock watches for suspicious activity.

How the threat of piracy affects funding and approval of future research programs remains to be seen. A recent newsletter from NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences stated: “Before submitting a proposal, principal investigators should carefully consider regions of potential danger when proposing a cruise strategy...NSF will not support cruises in areas where war risk insurance is unavailable, or is available at excessive premiums.” If a research proposal is approved for its scientific merit, ship operators will be asked to indicate willingness to undertake the cruise, and NSF will conduct reviews of security and its costs.

“The UNOLS fleet is not about to retreat to US coastal waters entirely,” says Knox, Associate Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “But we will have to learn how to temper plans and schedules in light of available information about terrorist and piracy threats. There may well be certain places and times where UNOLS ships should not go, even though good scientific reasons would lead there. The continued engagement of seagoing scientists will be needed to strike balances.”

At WHOI, the response is a mix of steely determination and practical concern. No one wants to be shut out of major regions of the ocean, but no one wants to risk the safety of ships and their crews. Coburn says that “we won’t say no to a cruise” because of piracy. Though she was fired upon the last time she went to sea, Bower insists, “We can’t let this change globe-trotting oceanography. I’d hate to see an overreaction to piracy.” Lin suggests one of the best preventive measures might be to expand international collaboration. Common interests and good communication can be an aid when politics intersect with science.

“In the end, we are all pretty hard-core about pursuing the science,” Gawarkiewicz says. “I haven't heard anyone say, ‘It’s too dangerous, I won't go there.’” But before they go in the future, they will probably learn a bit more about Blackbeard’s successors, global politics, and the art of self-defense.

Originally published: October 1, 2002