By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
ABOARD RMS QUEEN MARY (Reuters) - Posted between septuagenarian passengers in deck chairs, lookouts stand watch over the Gulf of Aden, scanning the horizon for pirates.
After more than half a decade of Somali men attacking Indian Ocean shipping from small speedboats with AK-47s, grappling hooks and ladders, the number of attacks is falling fast.
The last merchant ship to be successfully hijacked, naval officers monitoring piracy say, was at least nine months ago. It's a far cry from the height of the piracy epidemic two years ago, when several ships might be taken in a single week to be traded for airdropped multi-million dollar ransoms.
But as the Queen Mary 2, one of the world's most recognizable ocean liners, passes through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and out towards Dubai, its owners and crew are taking few chances.
"The pirates have weapons and are not afraid to use them," Lieutenant Commander Ollie Hutchinson, the British Royal Navy liaison officer aboard the liner for its trip through the Indian Ocean, tells a briefing of passengers in the ship's theatre. "Once the pirates have identified their target, they will try whatever means they can to get on board."
To underline his point, he displays a picture of an Italian helicopter hit by small arms fire from a pirate dhow late last year followed by assorted images of gunmen holding AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades.
In truth, the Queen Mary 2 - carrying 2,500 passengers and 1,300 crew from Southampton to Dubai on the first leg of a world cruise - is not particularly at risk.
Some 345 meters long and 14 stories high, even its promenade deck is seven floors above the sea. The liner is fast, hard to board and - on this passage at least - moderately well armed.
Like many merchant vessels, the QM2 now carries armed private contractors when passing through areas of pirate risk.
Cunard will not discuss precise security arrangements. But contractors on other vessels routinely carry M-16-type assault rifles and sometimes belt-fed machine guns, often picked up from ships acting as floating offshore armories near Djibouti and Sri Lanka.
Additional lookouts from the ship's regular onboard security force - mostly Filipinos - are also posted on the main deck to give warning of any suspicious craft.
"Depending on what happens with attacks, I'm hopeful we may be able to reduce our security measures when we pass through the same waters next year," says Commodore Christopher Rynd, senior captain of the British-based Cunard line and current master of the QM2. "But that's not a decision we will be making at this stage."
A CHANGING GAME?
When ships do come under attack, the first phone to ring is usually in a nondescript white bungalow in the gardens of the British Embassy in Dubai.
The UK Marine Transport Operation (UKMTO) was set up shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks to provide security advice to British shipping in the area. As pirate attacks soared in the second half of the last decade, it found itself coordinating international shipping across much of the Indian Ocean.
Most vessels passing through the area - container ships, tankers, cruise liners and dhows - now register daily with UKMTO. If they believe they are in danger, they will contact the British team to request military support.
"We've had calls when you could hear gunfire and rocket propelled grenades in the background," says Lieutenant Commander Simon Goodes, the current officer in charge. "But lately, the phones are ringing much less."
The only confirmed attack this year, Goodes said, was on a merchant vessel in early January as it sailed towards the Kenyan port of Mombasa. On-board private security guards repelled the assault after a 30 minute firefight.
According to the European Union anti-piracy task force EU NAVFOR, 2012 saw only 36 confirmed attacks and a further 73 "suspicious events" - incidents in which a crew report a suspicious craft that might be pirate but could also be simply an innocent fishing boat. That itself was a substantial fall from 2011, with 176 attacks and 166 "suspicious events".
Only five ships were captured in 2012, down from 25 in 2011 and 27 in 2010.
"This is an important year," says Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sheriff, spokeswoman for EU NAVFOR. "We will find out whether this fall in piracy is really sustainable."
Sea-borne attacks off West Africa, however, appear to be on the rise in what some analysts believe is a sign that Nigerian and other criminal gangs may be tempted by the Somali pirate model.
PIRATE BUSINESS MODEL FAILING?
Exactly what is behind the fall in Somali piracy is a matter of debate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the navies patrolling the Indian Ocean say the numbers show they are finally having an impact. Since piracy first grabbed global attention in 2008, a number of nations have sent ships to the region.
Sailing through the Internationally Registered Transit Corridor, a protected route between Somalia and Yemen, the QM2 passed warships from the United States, France, India and Australia.
As well as the EU force, there are separate flotillas from NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces that often include Asian vessels. Several other nations including China and Russia also keep ships there, running convoys through the "high-risk zone".
In May last year, EU NAVFOR launched its first onshore raid, targeting a suspected pirate group on the beach as it prepared to head to sea with helicopter and small arms fire.
Not everyone, however, believes that explains the fall. For many in the shipping industry, the fall in attacks is a vindication of the decision to massively ramp up the use of armed guards.
So far, not a single ship with armed guards has been taken by pirates - although naval officers and other piracy specialists say hired guards can be excessively trigger-happy and have fired on innocent fishermen from India, Oman and Yemen.
The situation is also changing in Somalia, which has been without a functioning government for two decades. The present administration is becoming more effective, as is an African military force tasked with tackling Islamist rebels.
RETIRED PIRATE, DARKENED LINER
Last month, one of Somalia's highest profile pirates told Reuters he was giving up his life of crime at sea.
"I have given up piracy and succeeded in encouraging more youths to give up piracy," said Mohamed Abdi Hassan. "It was not due to fear of warships. It was just a decision."
In an apparently separate development, three Syrian hostages held since 2010 were released without the payment of a ransom. Four vessels are currently still held by pirates along with 108 hostages, the EU says.
The bottom line, some military officers and analysts believe, may be that the lower success rate for pirates in the last year has prompted those bankrolling them to stop.
But no one is taking the pirates for granted. An apparent attempted night-time attack on a merchant ship only a handful of miles from the entrance to the Gulf at the Strait of Hormuz was a reminder attacks can take place across a huge area.
Shortly before entering the Suez Canal, QM2 held a security drill to instruct passengers in what to do if the ship comes under attack.
Passengers were urged to return below and sit in the companionway outside their rooms until the danger passed.
As dusk falls, orders are given to darken ship. Passengers close the curtains over their portholes or balcony windows, while crew members install blackout curtains in public areas. Basic running lights remain on to avoid collision, however.
The purpose, Commodore Rynd says, is to make it harder for any pirates to identify what kind of ship the QM2 might be and how far away. The darkened ship also makes it easier for the lookouts, equipped with night vision goggles, to see.
Other more vulnerable ships - particularly the "low and slow" - take more precautions. Shortly after first light, QM2 passes a bulk carrier, its fire hoses blasting over its stern to make it harder for pirates to clamber aboard.
In more remote parts of the Indian Ocean, the nearest naval support can be eight or nine hours away.
Aboard the liner, however, passengers seem largely unconcerned.
"It doesn't worry me at all," says Kiki O'Connell, 66, from Portland, Maine, as the ship approached Dubai. "Although I don't suppose we'll see any pirates now. I was hoping for Johnny Depp."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
(This story corrects reference to Somali government and military force in paragraph 29)