January 27th, 2009
I've been away for a while. I mentioned briefly that I had a new job. I never quite got around to correcting you, my dear Internet. So much has happened lately.
You may have heard recently about the vessel let go by the Somali pirates. You'll hear about it in news reports as the Biscaglia, a ship carrying palm oil out of Liberia for an American industrial shipping company named for a particular province in Spain -- how's THAT for culture clash?
The crew was freed a couple of days ago and you're not likely to hear why. Eventually you might hear that a ransom was paid by the owning company. You also might hear of some experimental sonic weapons that the Biscaglia attempted to field against the pirates. You'll hear they didn't work. There's a yes and a no to that.
Lloyd's List -- one of the oldest continually running journals -- had a bit of a slip up when they said that the Biscaglia attempted to defend itself with sonic lasers. As neat as that sounds, there isn't a laser component to it at all. It was supposedly a test case against the Somali pirates and you'll see lots of sparring back and forth on whether or not it would do any good.
The fact is that a sonic laser can not only cause tremendous hearing damage, but also it can disrupt your balance and vision. In addition, the Biscaglia found out that it can also disrupt your thinking process. If you take a careful look, you'll notice that in all the pictures of the attack, there's not a single picture of the pirate's skiffs and the ship, even though there are plenty of pictures of the hostages and the supposed pirates.
The pirates were chased off as one might imagine. The water cannons and sonic lasers did there job, but let this is a warning against the dangers of new technologies. No one was really quite sure what would happen before it was used, but now we know that sonic weapons of that sort can drive men mad.
Shortly after using it, the crew organized into a mob. Some had smuggled AK-47s along in the event they were boarded and began to use them. The three security guards were forced to run. They made it to the bridge first, barred the door, and proceeded up to the roof. One of the security guards was quoted as saying "They started shooting at me and I ran -- with them coming after me. They were only about 18, skinny and looked high [as though] on the local drug, called khat. They were spraying bullets everywhere."
The heroism of this group is quite a story itself -- they managed to send a distress signal, make a run for it, and leap into the sea. They were rescued by a German helicopter while an armed French helicopter looked on. How do you fight a crowd of erstwhile innocents driven to temporary madness?
A simple answer came in the days afterwards. You'll notice a few articles claiming that the pirates have been responsible for increased populations of fish in the Atlantic. This isn't exactly true. There weren't more fish. There were just more fish visible. They churned in the oceans near the ship. Atlantic mammals were driven off course by the disturbance. The sea around the ship took on a silvery tone with the vast variety of marine life circling. You'll hear the waters described as shark infested. There were sharks there, but that wasn't what eventually brought the crew around.
What did the trick was when the blue whales came.
Jules Verne wrote of narwhals in his book "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and the fears that ships were being sunk by narwhals gone mad. In fact, it turned out to be the Nautilus -- Captain Nemo's submarine. In this day of metallic hulls, a narwhal couldn't even conceivably muster that sort of power. Blue whales are normally peaceful. The world's largest mammal is a baleen whale which eats food it filters out of the sea water. That said, they are mightier than we ever might have hoped to account for.
After buffeting the ship for hours, the previously mindless mob was driven to a realization. Given time, the whales could succeed in capsizing the boat. Moreover, the presence of sharks in the water and the likelihood of blood ensured that those who found themselves in the sea would likely not make it unscathed. They turned to their one remaining weapon -- the water cannons. If you look at this photo, you'll notice that the water cannons are not actually aimed at anything. It was the crew's attempt to chase the sea life away by using water cannons.
It didn't work -- what did work was time. They were fortunate that the deployment of the sonic lasers was only temporary and of limited scale.
The sea still holds many wonders and many terrors for us. Verne's depiction of an angry giant squid was terrifying, but no more so than the stories which creep by us. Consider the Japanese man whose boat was capsized by an annoyed whale or the kayaker who was attecked by a killer whale. On a lighter note, consider the tuna boat mentioned in the Finding Nemo commentary which was capsized by fish in a similar manner to the movie.
Beware the seas and the terrors lurking within, friends.
No -- I was just really, really disappointed in my RHD entry this year. It was way, way, way below my standards. See previous years for reference.