Britney Spears is "Toxic" to Somali Pirates
That's right. According to U.K. Merchant Naval Officer Rachel Owens, British ships patrolling the coast of Africa have taken to blaring Spears's tunes to ward off pirates. "Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most," Metro (a free UK tabloid) reported on Sunday. "These guys can’t stand Western culture or music, making Britney’s hits perfect," said Owens.
Isn't it great to imagine a security team reviewing possible songs? Was Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" among the selections? What about viral sensation "What Does the Fox Say?"
Wondering if this story is true, or merely a publicity ploy for Spears' upcoming album release (the single, "Work Bitch" is already out there. You're welcome.) I called the London-based Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI). The Metro story quotes SAMI Maritime Director Steven Jones: "Pirates will go to any lengths to avoid or try to overcome the music." He adds, "I’d imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention."
SAMI Communications Manager Gianna Molica-Franco's phone has apparently been ringing non-stop since the story broke. "He did in fact say that and we can't believe the story has gotten that much traction." She laughed.
SAMI is embracing this titillating story rather than wishing it would go away - if only for the chance to raise awareness about the problems of piracy. As Molica-Franco notes, there are still more than 64 seafarers being held in Somalia and 2 U.S. crew members in Nigeria. Jones, as a former seafarer who survived a pirate attack himself, knows the subject well.
In an email, Molica-Franco later followed up with some fascinating background on the use of music to deter pirates:
"We were approached after it emerged that some private maritime security guards on merchant vessels were using music tracks to 'blast' at pirate skiffs which were approaching their ship. This was a trend, which began a few years ago, in which Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) were used to try and supposedly 'deafen' pirates. The equipment was first used by US police/military to quell rioters ashore, but it has been adapted for maritime use. However just as protesters ashore often use gas masks to counter tear gas, the wily pirates can also use ear defenders to counter noise."
Molica-Franco continued: "The LRADs are complex and expensive pieces of equipment, so not widely used. The marine LRAD trend was first used on cruise ships, most noticeably the Seaborne Spirit,which was attacked off Somalia. The presence of the big white LRAD dishes was perhaps a reassurance to passengers, over the actual effect on the pirates. News stories at the time described the LRAD as a "sonic weapon that fired a beam of sound at the pirates and drove them away."
The LRAD is capable of generating sounds of up to 162 dB, which is higher than the human threshold of pain (without ear defenders) which is generally regarded as around 130 dB. The LRAD is not solely about causing discomfort or injury; it is an excellent device for hailing or communicating across a distance – so ideal for telling suspected pirates to "back off." There is a suggestion, therefore, that the LRAD sound does not actually overpower the pirates, as claimed in the rash of news stories over past days.
"Instead, more likely the music shows the pirates that the vessel has security guards onboard. It then loudly demonstrates that the pirates have been spotted and the security team are ready to act against them if they proceed closer."
She added: "So rather than Britney actually making them break off their attack, it could be they are instead going to seek a softer unprotected target – one which may not be so vigilant or protected. While the artist choice does not appear to overly important, if the music is distasteful to the pirates, then it perhaps gets the message over a little quicker that their presence is not welcome – hence the Britney back-catalogue being a popular choice."
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm