Oil tankers are the floating goldmines of the ocean and it is of little wonder that pirates see them as attractive, if not imposing, targets. But with oil supplies supposedly running low, the last thing we need is for our precious barrels of liquid gold to fall into the wrong hands.
Yesterday, Somali pirates seized a tanker carrying crude oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States in the increasingly dangerous waters off East Africa, in an attack that could pose a huge environmental and security threat to the region.
The Greek-owned Maran Centaurus was about 1,300km off Somalia when it was hijacked on Sunday, said the EU Naval task force (Navfor). The ship, with its 28 crew members, was full of oil and is believed to be one of the largest yet seized by Somali pirates.
Pirates use guns and rocket-propelled grenades
In November 2008, pirates hijacked the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, which held 2 million barrels of oil valued at about $100 million. The tanker was released last January for a reported $3 million ransom after a two-month drama that helped galvanize international efforts to fight piracy off Africa's coast.
There are many dangers involved when an oil tanker is commandeered by pirates, most notably being run aground or getting involved in a fire-fight. Pirates typically use guns and rocket-propelled grenades in their attacks, and some vessels now carry private security guards, but oil tankers do not.
As Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House, says, "You're sitting on a huge ship filled with flammable liquid. You don't want somebody with a gun on top of that.
"Financially it's a very costly exercise because the value of oil is so volatile. If it is held for a long time and the price of oil drops, they could lose millions of dollars."
Responding with evasive maneuvers
But what steps can an oil tanker take to defend itself from a pirate attack?
Earlier this month the US-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama repelled an attack by suspected pirates off the northeast coast of Somalia. According to a statement from the US 5th Fleet, when a pirate skiff approached the ship, the security team on board responded with evasive maneuvers, and blasted them with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) and small-arms fire. The pirates then broke off the attack.
The LRAD is just one of a number of ways in which vessels can protect themselves, and the technology can easily be applied to any oil tankers at risk from attack. Fire hoses, robot boats and dazzle guns are other forms of anti-piracy devices that are more commonly used by other large vessels such as container ships, but oil tankers have cargo well worth protecting, and the above infographic takes a closer look at how.
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