Danger zone: Chasing West Africa’s pirates

Take a boat ride out from the Nigerian port of Lagos and it is easy to see why piracy, sea robbery and other forms of maritime crime are such a problem.

The ocean is swarming with cargo ships, oil tankers, barges and other vessels waiting for permission to enter the overcrowded port.

Great hulks of rusting metal, anchored and sitting low in the water, almost as if they are inviting pirates to sling their ladders over the side and clamber up on board.

"It was 14 August 2014," says Nigerian navigation officer Rotimi George.

"At around 2am I heard banging on my cabin door: Boom, boom, boom, boom. 'Pirate attack, pirate attack'. They seized the captain, who was Russian, and the Ukrainian chief officer."

Mr George is one of hundreds of seafarers who have been attacked this year off the coast of West Africa one of the world's top piracy spots - and far more dangerous than the waters off Somalia.

Psychological scars
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and the Oceans Beyond Piracy group, there has been an escalation in violence.

They say significantly more seafarers were killed and wounded in the first nine months of 2014 than for the whole of 2013, when more than 1,200 were affected.

This is believed to be a conservative estimate, as the IMB says about two-thirds of attacks off the coast of West Africa go unreported.

Nigeria's fishing industry has been badly affected by piracy
As well as physical violence, there are the psychological scars.

Captain Suresh Biradar, an Indian who was kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria, says he will never return to sea again.

"They kept us on the bare wooden floor of a tiny hut. Each day, the only food we had was a 70-gram packet of noodles.

"The pirates became violent after taking drugs. They pointed guns near our heads and ears, and fired bullets.

"I was released after 28 days when a ransom was paid."

The experiences of Mr George and Capt Biradar reflect a growing trend, not only of kidnapping for ransom, but of pirates sorting through the crew and taking away those considered to have "high-value" nationalities.

A study by Oceans Beyond Piracy has documented how pirates have seized American, Indian and Polish seafarers, but have left behind Nigerians because they are considered worthless in terms of ransom.

Robbery, cargo theft and ransoms
Unlike Somali pirates, who have used the single technique of seizing ships and their crew for ransom, there are three types of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

According to a former member of the British special forces, Sven Hanson, who now works for a private maritime security company in West Africa: "You've got the classic armed robbery at sea, which has been happening for centuries, where pirates board a vessel to steal money, radios and mobile phones.

"The next scale up is cargo theft, the predominant threat in West Africa, when pirates hijack an oil tanker, take her to a quiet place, bring another ship alongside and siphon off the oil.

"Third, there's kidnap for ransom when pirates seize the expatriates."

In most cases of West African piracy, the pirates want the cargo, not the crew.