Biology, Books for the News

When pirates are chasing you when you are chasing science at sea

jacket imagePirates have been making headlines recently, and not the dreamy Johnny Depp kind of pirates, either. Armed buccaneers off the coast of East Africa prey on cargo ships hauling food, expensive machinery, and oil. According to USA Today, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia are up 75% this year. We asked our resident high-seas expert Ellen Prager if she had ever had an encounter with a pirate, Jack Sparrow-esque or more malevolent, while chasing science at sea. Here’s what she had to say:

When planning for fieldwork, ocean scientists usually think about research instruments, supplies, food, and, of course, safety. And that last one now includes the very real potential of encountering pirates. Today, Somali pirates are getting bolder, as evidenced by the recent hijacking of a Saudi supertanker filled with millions of dollars worth of oil. But in August of 2001, it was a research vessel that was at risk. Armed assailants pursued the US Research Vessel Maurice Ewing while they were in waters 30 km off the coast of Somalia. The crew was able to fend off the attackers, but the incident spurred great concern within the scientific community and funding agencies. After the close call, new operating procedures for many research vessels were put in place along with improved security training and preparation for the crew.
I too have had an encounter—okay, an almost encounter—with pirates. While on a geological field trip in a remote area of the Bahamas a boat in the distance radioed for assistance, reporting that they were lost. The captain and mate onboard our boat gave them a course to set to where they wanted to go, but the boat turned toward us instead, on a direct course to intersect. The mate was suspicious as we were in a very remote area where pirates were known to attack boats to steal the valuables aboard and strip out electronics. He got on the bow with a very large and visible gun. When the other boat got closer to us, close enough to see that we were wary and prepared, it made a sharp change of course, heading back the way they had come, and not, I may point out, in the direction where they were supposedly headed. We were all relieved, to say the least, that we avoided becoming the victims of piracy on the high seas!

For more about the swashbuckling life of an ocean scientist, read an excerpt from the book or click here to learn more about Chasing Science at Sea.