Paleoclimatologist Peter B. deMenocal was on one of the last research vessels to ply the waters off the Horn of Africa before the region was declared off limits to scientists due to the threat posed by Somali pirates—a peril vividly illustrated in this fall’s hit movie, Captain Phillips.
Professor Peter B. deMenocal on the R/V Oceanus off the coast of Mauritania, northwest Africa, in 2007.
Fortunately deMenocal was aboard a Dutch-flagged vessel. “If we had been flying the American flag I probably wouldn’t be here today,” says the professor and current chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
After receiving faxes about recent attacks in the area, the crew went on high alert, peering with binoculars across the dark waters off the coast of Somalia. “It was pretty nerve-wracking,” deMenocal recalls. Navigation and interior lights were turned off, the ship’s radio went silent, and plans for what to do if pirates boarded the vessel were reviewed.