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Crime at sea: The world's most pirate-infested waters

Like the Caribbean of old, the waters near Somalia used to be the most heavily pirated in the world. Now there's a new king of the pirates that's quickly become a headache for governments, shipping companies, cruise lines, energy firms, global conglomerates and—perhaps most immediately—for sailors trying to ply trade.

When CNBC first examined the world’s most dangerous waters in 2008, Somalian pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden and coastal Somalia easily dominated as the globe’s most prolific, according to data compiled by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. Somalia and the Gulf of Aden still have treacherous waters, but no longer the worst: Over the last five quarters, examined here, a new country’s national waters have become the most heavily pirated on earth.

Also changed are the tactics used to combat piracy. National navies have become much more active in the fight against piracy, and commercial tankers and cargo vessels increasingly employ armed security—a concept that was rare and even discouraged in many maritime circles as recently as 2008.

As greater arms have come to bear against the pirates, the maritime brigands have honed their tactics and beefed up their armament as well. Below are the world’s most pirate-infested waters, and an individual attack from each place.

Indonesia (43 Pirate Attacks)
Indonesia’s 17,500 islands and their surrounding waters now take the title as the world’s most heavily pirated. Shortly before 11 p.m. at Belawan Anchorage, the docked Rudolf Schulte, was boarded by six pirates who climbed aboard using a long bamboo pole topped with a metal hook. A sailor on duty spotted the men, who were armed with guns and knives. The pirates noticed the sailor as well, and attacked him as he tried to contact the ship’s bridge on a handheld radio. The robbers swiped his walkie-talkie, thrust him to the deck and bound him. They then turned to the ship’s stores and began to plunder. The raiding may have distracted the pirates, however, as the sailor managed to free himself and take off on foot toward the bridge. He raised a general alarm. The sound frightened the pirates, who fled. Indonesian authorities were informed, but as is often the case, their efforts were too little, too late. The six pirates, with their contraband, escaped into the night, free to attack again.

Somalia (31 Pirate Attacks)
Somalian piracy isn’t as widespread as it was five years ago, but it’s still a serious problem. The mostly Ukrainian crew of MSC Jasmine was underway in broad daylight when six pirates in a skiff began chasing their ship. Shortly afterward, the attackers opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The master of MSC Jasmine raised an alert, sent most of his sailors to the ship’s citadel, and ordered his security team to return fire. The pirates retreated, but didn’t get far. Two warships responding to MSC Jasmine’s distress signal, the American USS Halyburton and French FS Surcouf, intercepted the skiff and caught its mother ship to boot. Twelve pirates were taken into custody.

Nigeria (22 Pirate Attacks)
PM Salem was underway about 25 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria, when pirates in a boat approached quickly from the rear of the vessel. The interlopers were armed with machine guns, and began firing on PM Salem, pictured, as they chased the Honduran vessel. The ship’s master opened up his throttle, fired off a distress message and ordered all crew except for himself and the onboard security team to a safe room. The security team took positions on PM Salem’s stern and returned fire. A vicious fight ensued and went on for 20 minutes before the security team finally drove off the attackers. Their successful efforts came at a horrific price, however: Three security team members were shot, one of them losing his life.

Gulf of Aden (10 Pirate Attacks)
Sometimes, the pirates shoot back. Crewmembers aboard the North Sea were already on alert after spotting a suspicious dhow—a wooden sailing vessel that pirates sometimes use as a “mother ship”—in the vicinity. Shortly after, the men saw a small skiff about 1.5 nautical miles away and closing in at 20 knots. The ship’s master sent a distress signal to the UK Maritime Trade Operation, a Royal Navy fleet that runs anti-pirate patrols in the Gulf of Aden. The British, though far distant, replied that they would immediately dispatch a military helicopter. The skiff drew closer, and security personnel aboard the North Sea saw that the pirates were armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Security fired warning shots, and the pirates immediately fired back. A ship-to-ship firefight broke out, with the pirates reeling off more than 50 rounds. Finally, they broke off the attack. Despite an extensive aerial search, the pirates were never located.

India (7 Pirate Attacks)
It doesn’t take a speed boat to steal from a ship that’s sitting still. The six pirates who attacked the Maersk Visual, seen here, arrived at the anchored tanker just before 7 a.m. in a long, wooden boat with a sail and oars. The Maersk Visual’s officer of the watch spotted the boat alongside and ordered a sailor to investigate. The sailor spotted two strange men hauling ship property across the deck and gave chase. The pirates jumped into their wooden boat and started rowing. Crewmembers on Maersk Visual raised an alarm and called Visakhapatnam Anchorage port control, but amazingly, the back-to-basics pirates got away with their booty.

Red Sea (7 Pirate Attacks)
A white skiff that appeared to have two men on board rushed the Pacific Galaxy, seen here, in the early morning hours. Two outboard motors pushed the skiff at more than 25 knots. As it closed in, crew members warily watching the small craft saw five more men rise up from where they had been lying flat on the floor of the vessel. The master of the Panamanian tanker gave his armed, on-board security team permission to fire warning shots. Other crew members retreated to a secure “citadel”—a fortified, secure room on board the ship. The security team let loose with a volley of bullets. The pirates promptly called off the attack. About an hour and a half later, however, pirates returned, this time in two skiffs. When the pirates drew within 200 meters, the security team opened up with rifle fire and shot rocket flares. The pirates retreated—this time for good.

Bangladesh (7 Pirate Attacks)
Five men armed with long knives scrambled up the anchor chain of the Diana Bolten, seen here, at 3 a.m. as she sat docked in Chittagong Anchorage. The vessel’s second mate noticed movement near the top of the chain and asked the deck watchman to investigate. Three of the pirates threatened the watchman as he approached through the darkness, and the second mate directed a spotlight onto the men. The pirates fled back down the anchor chain, taking as much ship property as they could carry with them. Calls went out to port control authorities and the Bangladeshi coast guard, which scoured the area in search of the robbers. It was too late: They escaped.

Ivory Coast (6 Pirate Attacks)
The Gascogne, pictured, was underway 70 nautical miles south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when 12 pirates with firearms boarded the French-owned tanker just before 7 a.m. They overpowered Gascogne’s 17 crew members, injuring two, and took control. The pirates sailed the hijacked ship to Nigeria, where they siphoned off its cargo of crude oil. After stealing the crew’s personal belongings, the pirates released the men and the Gascogne. At the time, the attack on the Gascogne was the third attack in Ivorian waters in just five days.

Peru (4 Pirate Attacks)
Pirate attacks are actually much more common when vessels are docked than when they’re at sea. The stealthy pirates who attacked Overseas Pearlmar, seen here, provide a good example. The ship was berthed at Talara Port, Peru, when the crew noticed that some of the vessel’s stores were missing. They inspected the ship, and found physical clues that told the story: Pirates had dismantled a metal guard on the anchor chain near water level and then climbed up the chain. Taking the deck, they forced their way into the forecastle store by breaking the hinge on a padlocked door. They took what they wanted and escaped unseen.

Singapore Straits (4 Pirate Attacks)
De Hui was steaming with its barge, Haiyangshiyou, under tow in the Singapore Straits, seen here, when she was approached by a speed boat just after 5 p.m. Six pirates on the much swifter craft pulled alongside Haiyangshiyou, boarded her, grabbed various goods from the deck and quickly made their escape. But it wasn’t over for De Hui. After night fell, another speedboat came alongside the tug itself. Two pirates in camouflage leaped aboard, overpowered De Hui’s boatswain, threw him to the deck and held him at knifepoint. The ship’s master, seeing the commotion, raised a general alarm. De Hui’s crew mustered and the pirates, seeing the men gathering against them, released the boatswain and fled. They managed to steal nothing.