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 days before Somali pirates had grabbed a tuna boat with a crew of 29 just to the north of where we motor, near Denis Island. A few days before that they’d 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 month 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 easer. 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 crewmembers 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.
Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.