AP reported that was the real-life situation the crew and passengers of the Seabourn Spirit found themselves in off Somalia last
weekend. With piracy common in some areas and terrorism fears present after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, cruise lines say they train their crews and have security measures to respond effectively to these threats.
But security experts say that despite all the preparations, cruise liners are vulnerable to attacks like this one or the deadly bombing by al-Qaeda-linked militants of the USS Cole in Yemen five years ago.
Cruise industry officials said the Spirit's successful efforts to repel the attackers validate security plans that all ships must have in place under U.S. and international law. They point out that no passenger was injured on the Spirit and just one crewmember had minor injuries.
Cruise lines are in constant communication with authorities on land and the U.S. military responded to the attack on the Spirit, he said. The U.S. counterterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa is based in Djibouti, which borders Somalia.
But he said that attacks on cruise ships are rare — this was the first since Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985 and killed a wheelchair-bound American Jew.
The cruise lines are reluctant to talk about their specific security plans, fearing that the information could help those willing to pounce ships. Crye said cruise companies are permitted to arm their crews, but he wouldn't say if they did.
Kenneth Bissonnette, staff manager for surveillance and security at Carnival Cruise Lines, told The Associated Press in March 2004 that security personnel for the world's largest cruise line didn't carry firearms, but had defenses like pepper spray. He said the company's security staff recruited heavily among Gurkhas, elite Nepalese soldiers renowned for their fearlessness.
Bissonnette declined to comment Monday. Tim Gallagher, a spokesman for company parent Carnival Corp., declined to comment on specific security procedures.
Cruise lines are reluctant to have armed guards onboard because that might hurt their image with some passengers, said William Callahan, president of maritime security consultant Unitel. He proposes that they should have armed speedboats as escorts when traveling in dangerous areas.
Other known defenses on cruise ships include high-pressure firehouses used to prevent intruders from boarding ships. That method was also used by the Spirit's crew. Seabourn Cruise Line
, the Carnival Corp. subsidiary that operates the ship, also has bought the high-tech sonic weapons, which were developed for the U.S. military after the Cole bombing.
The Long Range Acoustical Device sends earsplitting noise in a concentrated beam. Its maker, American Technology Corp. of San Diego, doesn't know of any cruise lines other than Miami-based Seabourn that have installed them, said A.J. Ballard, the company's director of military operations.
Callahan also questioned why the Spirit was about 100 miles off Somalia, which has no effective government and is ruled by warlords. The International Maritime Bureau has for several months warned ships to stay at least 150 miles away from Somalia's coast because of an increase in pirate attacks.
Many cruise lines have tried to avoid the area, but vessels going from the Mediterranean to Asia or Africa must pass through there.
Seabourn spokesman Bruce Good said the line hasn't decided whether to change its routes. But he said the Spirit was on its highest alert while there.
Seabourn has said it appeared the attackers were pirates whose motivation was robbery. But Petersen doubted that was the case, because he said pirates would have tried to disable the ship's steering and propulsion if they wanted to get onboard. Witnesses said the attackers shot grenades toward passengers.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Monday that the attackers might have been terrorists.
Either way, cruise lines fear that their image as safe havens of fun could be tarnished. After the Achille Lauro hijacking, the eastern Mediterranean cruise market had a sharp decline in traffic. The Sept. 11 attacks forced cruise companies to offer heavy discounts to lure leery passengers onto ships, and ticket prices are only now getting back to pre-attack levels as the industry is having a year of record profits and traffic.
Because no one was killed in the Spirit attack, travelers probably won't be spooked, said Jeff Sharlach, chairman and CEO of The Jeffrey Group, a public relations firm that runs crisis management teams for companies like FedEx (FDX)