Thursday, 28 July 2011

Scuba Scooter!

“This unique underwater experience is very safe and definitely something you should do at least once in your lifetime, "says Gary Gordon, President of Aqua Star USA. “It’s an incredible experience that will open your eyes to an amazing new world. The scenery is unbelievable with countless species of fish and an array of bright and varied colours in an underwater tropical paradise. And if you bring along your waterproof camera, your experience will surely last a life time”.

Gordon was talking about the AS2, the two person underwater scooter that his company has developed and rolled out recently. An improved version of its earlier single seater AS1 model, the company says that the sleeker, faster and lighter AS2 has been designed keeping in mind boaters, diving enthusiasts, leisure dive operators - and couples that simply want to enjoy underwater thrills together.

Aqua Star’s sea scooters were created to provide the scuba diving experience to anyone who wanted to explore underwater without diving experience or certification. The new underwater scooter allows two people to sit comfortably in their own breathing environment and travel at speeds up to 4 mph down to a depth of about 12 metres for up to 70 minutes 'air time' and 2.5 hours battery life. Batteries run two electric motors- for speed and depth- with controls similar to those on a land scooter; the driver turns the handlebars for direction and pushes 'batons' for speed and depth. A diving type helmet is part of the scooter body, and is made of flat fog resistant 99% distortion free glass for clarity. The breathing apparatus and scuba bottles are scooter-mounted, with pressure and depth gauges placed on the handlebar. Air will last for seventy minutes. A rider can even dismount, swim around and climb back aboard!

The company says that the depths the scooter can operate in are ideal for shallow reefs and caves. The scooter is environmentally friendly and quiet, they say, and anybody can master the controls in a training course that can be completed in just a few minutes. Safety divers control ascent and descent into the water, and the scooter is tethered to the world above with a rope that can be tied to a buoy. Even people with minor disabilities- or those more timid- can ride as passengers. The only noticeable difference in 'driving' the underwater scooter, when compared to a normal one, is the dual motors that make both vertical and horizontal movement simultaneously possible.

The Aqua Scooter may not be in the same class as Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' or a Jacques Cousteau expedition, but we think it will be a big hit wherever diving enthusiasts or thrill seekers are found- or at tourist hangouts that boast clear surrounding waters, right from the Caribbean to the Andamans.


Somali pirates demand compensation for other pirate deaths

In developments reminiscent to those of the MV Asphalt Venture where seven Indians were kept back as hostages even as their ship was released, Somali pirates holding four South Korean crewmembers on the hijacked tanker MT Gemini have now demanded compensation from the South Korean government for the MV Samho Jewelry storming by commandos earlier this year. Eight pirates were killed in that incident that left the Captain of the Samho Jewelry seriously injured. The pirates holding the Gemini, with twenty-five crew, have also demanded the release of their other pirates from South Korean jails before they release the Korean crew.

A pirates aboard the MT Gemini told the Associated Press that the current South Korean policy was “foolish treatment”, and said that his group would "reconsider holding their (South Korean) nationals in our hands” after compensation was paid and other pirates held in Korea released. The South Korean government has refused comment so far.

Analysts say pirate actions of holding back the crew will increase pressure on shipping companies to deploy armed guards since paying ransoms is no longer a guarantee that crew will be released unharmed, especially if they belong to countries that have taken robust action against Somali piracy.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Akhona Geveza death: Safmarine says no sexual abuse of cadet

Belgian container company Safmarine says that the results of its internal probe on the South African cadet Akhona Geveza's death indicates that no sexual abuse was involved, a statement that contradicts almost all initial reports of the shocking incident. Akhona's body was found floating off the Croatian coast more than a year ago; she was a cadet aboard the UK registered 'Safmarine Kariba' at the time and a part of a South African Transnet National Port Authority programme. Initial reports said that she had complained to the Captain a few hours before her disappearance that she had been raped by the Chief Officer, and that she had told another cadet that the Chief Officer had forced himself on her 'many times'.

Safmarine CEO Tomas Dyrbye now says that his company's probe reveals instead that, “Akhona had, in response to a direct question from the master, denied that she had been subjected to any form of sexual abuse,” says Dyrbye, and that she had indicated “personal problems” in her relationship with the Chief Officer; she had also said that she had “suicidal considerations”. The Captain says he held a meeting with Geveza and the Chief Officer in the presence of the Chief Engineer, where it was decided to sign off the cadet two days later when the ship called Trieste. Safmarine says that Croatian police had reached the conclusion that Akhona, who had just a couple of weeks to go to complete her apprenticeship, had jumped overboard after the incident, a finding Safmarine agrees with.

After the Akhona incident, other cadets from Transnet- of both sexes- had painted a lurid and sleazy picture of trainee sexual abuse in the Transnet programme both ashore and afloat. Reports had said that one female cadet had a child with a South African Maritime Safety Agency executive after he threatened to cancel her contract if she told anyone that she had been raped. Another female cadet was quoted as saying, after joining a ship, “It was like we were dumped in the middle of a game park.” Other cadets had claimed systematic abuse of power by senior officers at sea "who threatened cadets' careers if they did not perform sexual acts”.

Nautilus, the British maritime union, says that investigations in the Akhona case so far are 'unsatisfactory' and that the British Foreign Office should, through the Flag State, independently probe the shocking incident since it happened on a British registered vessel. Spokesperson Andrew Linington says: “We see the issue of jurisdiction come up often as an excuse not to do anything or even as part of the process of criminalising seafarers.” In other developments, the ITF, which has been following the investigations, plans to send its officials to Croatia once Akhona's family authorises them to do so.

Meanwhile, Safmarine says it has upgraded the Transnet programme after the tragedy to make sure the company was doing “everything we could to ensure the safety and well being of those serving on our vessels”. Cadets have been given 24-hour internet access, personal e-mail ids and 'life skills' training by an industrial psychologist, besides having access to an independent third-party employee assistance programme. As an added precaution, they will now only sail on the Europe-South Africa routes.

A million dollars of ransoms paid to terrorist group in two month period

A Reuter's investigation, combined with statements made by UN officials, seems to confirm what many observers strongly claim: that the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab's operations are being financed partly by ransoms from ships. Some suspect that the links between the two groups goes even further, including in matters of logistical and operational cooperation and supplies- and so exposes shipping in the region to the danger of maritime terrorism in addition to the scourge of piracy.

Reuters says that pirates, al Shabaab militants and residents of Haradhere have corroborated that payments totalling more than a million dollars have been made to Al Shabaab's "marine office" in a short two-month period this year:

February 25: US$200,000 from the US$4.5 million ransom for the Japanese MV Izumi.
March 8: US$80,000 from the US$2 million ransom for the MV Rak Africana.
March 9: US$100,000 from the US$4.5 million ransom for the Singapore-flagged MV York.
April 13: US$600,000 from the US$5.5 million ransom for the MV Beluga Nomination.
April 15: US$66,000 from the US$3.6 million ransom for the MV Asphalt Venture.
May 14: US$100,000 from the ransom paid for the release of two Spanish crew of the FV VEGA 5.

Somali pirates made roughly US$240 million in ransoms last year; it is not known how much of this money has found its way to the Al Shabaab. Nevertheless, the Reuter investigation will put further pressure on the UN and governments to act; the terms of the arms embargo on Somalia ban financial support to armed groups in the country; besides, Al Shabaab has long been declared a terrorist organisation by both the United States and the United Kingdom.

John Steed, special envoy to Somalia, admits that links between armed pirate gangs and the Shabaab were 'gradually firming'. "The payment of ransoms, just like any other funding activity, illegal or otherwise, is technically in breach of the Somalia sanctions regime if it makes the security situation in Somalia worse," he says, "especially if it is ending up in the hands of terrorists or militia leaders -- and we believe it is." He added, though, that there was no 'proof' of any operational relationship between Al Shabaab and pirate groups.

However, the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says pirates are operating in greater numbers from Kismayu, a city controlled by the Shabaab, and that recruitment of pirates there is rising. "Detained pirates tell us that some level of cooperation with Al Shabaab is necessary to run a criminal enterprise," Alan Cole of the UNODC says.

An Al Shabaab fighter told Reuters in Haradhere, another pirate stronghold, "If there was no relationship between us, there is no way the pirates would be able to operate or carry their weapons within zones we control." Al Shabaab is believed to have forced pirate leaders in the town to pay 20% of all ransoms to them.

"Some money has to be ending up in Al Shabaab's hands," says Michael Frodl of C-level Maritime Risks- he advises Lloyd's underwriters- adding that payment of ransoms could possibly be breaking laws against funding terrorism in some western countries like the US. The US Treasury, says Frodl, has cleared ransoms in the past before they are paid. ""But if there is indeed a 20 percent 'tax' being applied by Shabaab against pirate ransoms in Haradhere, a major pirate hub it now controls, then things could change."

Independent analysts, however, say that governments like those in the UK and the US are deliberately ignoring, for their own reasons, links between the Shabaab and pirate groups. They point to the fact that two of the leaders of pirate gangs are in the group of eleven 'masterminds of the Somali conflict,' - whom President Obama had barred financial dealings with in an Executive Order last year.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The island of Socotra: now a pirate base?

Despite the huge international naval presence in the region meant to fight the menace of piracy, credible reports have emerged saying that the Yemeni controlled island of Socotra off the Horn of Africa is being used as a refuelling and restocking hub for Somali pirates. "Socotra has been used for months if not longer," says Mr Michael Frodl, a maritime risk consultant and adviser to Lloyd's underwriters, citing intelligence reports.

A Yemeni official said recently that about twenty pirates had been arrested from a commercial vessel- presumably supplying the pirate bases on Socotra- and another sixteen on the island. Supplies, including fuel, arms and food, are said to be regularly brought in on dhows from the Yemeni mainland near Al Mukalla, a port on the southern Yemeni coast. Security experts say that Socotra may well be a transit point for arms bound for the Somali mainland as well.

Analysts fear that the political and military chaos in Yemen will only increase the pirate presence on the islands- Socotra is part of a group of four islands that belong to Yemen. Although the country has a military presence there, observers believe that the pirates have bought the Yemenis off.

"It (Socotra) is perhaps the most important refuelling hub for hijacked merchant vessels used as mother ships, especially those operating between the Gulf of Aden and India's western waters, mainly off Oman and increasingly closer to the Strait of Hormuz," Frodl adds. "A hijacked merchant vessel, unlike a hijacked dhow, has a voracious thirst for fuel and needs a very well stocked refuelling station."

Peter Pham of the US 'Atlantic Council' agrees. "A credible amount of evidence has emerged in recent years that Somali pirates have certainly taken advantage of jurisdictional issues to operate in and out of the Socotra archipelago with at least the tacit connivance of at least some Yemeni authorities," adding that Socotra has been "a favourite stomping ground for pirates for centuries as both Marco Polo and the great 14th century Islamic scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta attest."

Meanwhile, International Maritime Bureau director Pottengal Mukundan has said that if it is true that pirates are using Socotra, then "it is an extremely disturbing development requiring urgent investigation."


Shipping Confidence at two-year low, says Moore Stephens.

Overtonnaging, fuel costs and stagnant freight rates causing concern

One of the leading maritime advisory firms in the world says that confidence levels in the industry have fallen for the fourth successive quarter and are at their lowest level in two years. Moore Stephens says that overtonnaging is the single largest headache for the industry, with rising fuel costs coming in second.

On a scale of 1 to 10- with 1 being the lowest- respondents to the Moore Stephens May 2011 study averaged confidence levels of just 5.6. Corresponding levels stood at 5.8 in February this year, and are just marginally higher than those expressed two years ago in May 2009, when they averaged 5.5. It appears that charterers are the least optimistic, followed by managers and brokers. Additionally, Asian confidence levels have fallen faster than those in Europe, where they nonetheless remain the lowest worldwide.

The bite is being felt in India too. The Economic Times reported early this month that shipping companies faced a 20% rise in operational costs as bunker oil prices reached a record $650 a barrel - up 50% since last year; these are expected to stay high for sometime. Confesses Mr Ramakrishnan, MD Essar Shipping, "These are tough times for the industry. Added to the woes is the anticipated slowdown in the market due to the crisis in Europe and other macro economic factors". Operators are caught between low freight rates on one hand and escalating costs on the other; some are looking to short-term time charters to try to stay afloat.

“The key word for most companies right now is ‘survival’,” one unnamed industry player is quoted as saying in the Moore Stephens report. Another one adds, “Increasingly, companies would rather shut down operations than risk losing even more money in the current climate.” Others indicated that the present depression in the shipping markets would last for the next two or three years, although some said they hoped that the end of 2011 would bring some cheer. However, many said that banks would become increasingly chary of financing new projects. As one of the participants pointed out, “Owners are running out of cash at a time when the markets remain poor, and are likely to weaken further. We can expect to see a rise in bankruptcies and arrests as the ability of the banks to restructure becomes more constrained.”

What is clear is that overcapacity remains a huge concern, with some saying that supply would remain ahead of demand for at least a couple of years. Others hope that scrapping of vessels would increase exponentially, resulting in some balance in the market. Other pressures will influence, too. Said one observer, “Too much yard capacity will result in an adverse oversupply of tonnage”.

Moore Stephens partner Richard Greiner, says, “The dip in confidence can be attributed to both external factors and to industry concerns. Externally, we are seeing a reaction to political unrest in various parts of the world and to a number of natural disasters. The rise in fuel prices was a major factor in influencing the thoughts of our respondents. Depending on which reports you read, and where in the world you bunker your ships, fuel prices have gone up by around 50% over recent months".

He adds, “Now may be a good time to buy for those who can put the finance in place to fund a viable venture. We will see what our next survey brings. Three months is a long time in shipping.”


'Indian Ports Global' to promote overseas acquisitions

India will set up a $550 million company that will invest in terminals and ports abroad. The 25 billion rupee enterprise will be owned by the State, and will be modelled along the lines of Dubai's DP World and Singapore's PSA International, two entities that have invested considerably outside their home countries.

Although the Ministry of Shipping is tightlipped on the details, insiders say that 'Indian Ports Global,' the new company, will kick off this month. It is slated to promote trade and give Indian shipping companies a leg up by making access to foreign facilities easier. “It will no doubt help India increase its influence,” Mr. Anand Sharma of Mantrana Maritime Advisory Pvt. Ltd says. “The world is moving toward cross-border acquisitions to ease logistics bottlenecks.” The move comes even as SCI is on a scorching expansion spree, with more than a hundred ships slated to be purchased in the next ten years.

The first tranche of initial funding for the new company- about 2500 crores- will come from existing government run port trusts; this will be followed by the issuance of tax free bonds at a later date. About 5000 crores will be raised this way. JNPT, Mumbai Port Trust, Paradeep, Mangalore and Kandla are said to be sitting on large cash reserves, and the government feels that these can be utilised to leverage the new company. The setting up of a Maritime Finance Corporation was announced by the Ministry of Shipping a few months ago to help finance government port projects; its mandate can now be extended to provide seed capital for Indian Ports Global, observers say.

Private companies out of India have already set the ball rolling for overseas port acquisitions, with Ahmadabad based Adani Group acquiring a 50 million tonne Australian port for Rs 8700 crore recently. Analysts say that Indian Ports Global will look initially at the same broad region - Southeast Asia- particularly at the merits of investment in coal terminals in Indonesia. They expect that a dedicated body identifying and accomplishing overseas acquisitions will be able to sidestep problems individual port trusts face in similar ventures, since these lack individual economic cloud and, additionally, are diverted from their core operations.

India has been looking aggressively to expand its maritime footprint in recent times. Besides acquiring tonnage to service projected rising exports- to double by 2014- and to handle increasing international trade, the government wants to invest in ports that have significant connections with cargoes to or from India. Ninety percent of Indian trade moves by sea.

Indian Ports Global, once cabinet approved, is envisaged as a lean organisation staffed by diverse professionals, sources say. They admit, however, that special efforts will have to be made to overcome the presence- and long head start- of established players like Dubai Ports and PSA.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Fears of mass extinction surface after study of ocean degradation

An expert group of scientists has warned of mass extinction 'unlike anything human history has ever seen' if the degradation of the oceans is not stopped. In their preliminary report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO)- the first interdisciplinary international group to analyse the combined effect of all stressors hitting oceanic ecology-  scientists spoke plainly.  “The findings are shocking," said IPSO's Scientific Director Dr. Alex Rogers. "This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime."
IPSO examined the collective influence of major stressors on the oceans, including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia- oxygen deficiency. They now say that the degeneration in the oceans is happening much faster than predicted; this is creating the conditions that have been associated with all major extinctions in the planet's history. The group adds that- for a start- marine extinction is 'inevitable' unless things change dramatically.

IPSO's report complements other recent studies that have greatly alarmed environmentalists. The journal Nature went a step beyond the IPSO report, saying that the first man-made extinction could be already underway and would not reverse unless humans made 'significant changes to their behaviour'. 

Other scientists said recently that this year's "dead zone" (caused by low or no oxygen in the ocean) in the northern Gulf of Mexico will be the largest in history- around 9000 square miles- because of fertiliser carried out with the Mississippi flows. Nutrients in the fertiliser promote algae that consume the oxygen in the water, an annual occurrence. Fish, shrimp and many other species perish unless they escape the dead zone. Analysts point out that the Deepwater Horizon spill - 19 times that from the Exxon Valdez- has complicated matters even further.

Then, oysters and corals are disappearing from our oceans. A BioScience study claims that oysters are already "functionally extinct," as 85 percent of their reefs have been destroyed through disease or over-harvesting. This means that oysters no longer play any significant role in the ecosystems, and they are on the road to complete extinction. Another study from 'The World Resources Institute' says that all of the world's coral reefs could be gone in forty years, by 2050. 500 million people's livelihoods worldwide would be threatened if this happens, not least because coastlines would lose protection from storms.

"Threats on land, along the coast and in the water are converging in a perfect storm of threats to reefs," says Jane Lubchenco of the US' Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IPSO scientists want UN intervention and a regime of "effective governance of the High Seas." The report also calls for an immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, coordinated efforts to restore marine ecosystems and universal implementation so "activities proceed only if they are shown not to harm the ocean singly or in combination with other activities."            
Three quarters of all animal species were destroyed in five previous mass extinctions in the past 540 million years. Although we seem to be on track for the sixth, not all is lost yet. However, Dan Laffoley, one of the authors of the report, is unambiguous about the urgent need for change. "The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent," he says.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Seasteading: building countries at sea?

"The ocean is the next frontier"

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman's grandson Patri's vision is as panoramic as his economist grandfather's: Patri plans to build floating nations- the first one, off the California coast- that will be founded on libertarian principles. Patri outlines the prime reason for his project. "Innovation in society and serving marginalised groups has always happened on the frontier. We don't have a frontier anymore. The reason our political system doesn't innovate anymore is that there is no place to try out new things. We want to provide that place." 

Some reject Patri's vision- that he calls seasteading- as a crazy idea, but venture capitalists have already shelled out $2 million dollars for his project. Funding is led by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, according to Patri's 'Seasteading Institute'. The Institute works 'to enable seasteading communities - floating cities - which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world'.

The first of these small flotilla nations will be constructed on a series of barges and platforms 12 miles off San Francisco, and would include homes, schools, hospitals and transportation. Food would be grown on aqua farms. Construction will begin in 2012, and the 'seastead' will keep on growing until 2040, at which time Patri expects to have 'tens of millions of residents.'  Friedman wants to create a political vacuum into which people can experiment with startup governments that are "consumer-oriented, constantly competing for citizens," he says. "I envision tens of millions of people in an Apple or a Google country," where the high-tech giants would govern and residents would have no vote. "If people are allowed to opt in or out, you can have a successful dictatorship."

The Seasteading Institute has George Petri as its Director of Engineering. The ex Professor of Naval Architecture at the Webb Institute and an offshore industry consultant

has his work cut out for him- the design and structural analysis of the nation-flotilla will be no walk in the park. In addition, in addition to critical engineering issues, Patri and his team will have to look hard at legal, jurisdictional and diplomatic issues that these floating nations will generate in future.

Patri's Seasteading Institute recognises that the sea is a harsh mistress, and that, unlike ships, seasteads cannot flee to port to avoid a storm. "This is one of the primary questions The Seasteading Institute's engineering program seeks to answer", it says, adding that off-the-shelf technology can be used for other, smaller issues. It says it is focusing on safety, economy and comfort at the moment- and a modular concept, so the project has the ability to scale. The project draws heavily from well-established technologies from cruise ships, oil platforms, and bridges.

As can be expected, Patri's vision has many detractors. "The whole thing is so far from any kind of conventional urban planning," says UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture Margaret Crawford. "The physical premises are just ridiculous."

But others see seasteading as the future, some even claiming that it will be, eventually, a stepping-stone to human colonies in space. "Two hundred years ago, we could have gone out West," says Jon Cain, President of the Thiel Foundation. "Now, we have to go further. The ocean is the next frontier."