March 6, 2024

10 of The Most Dangerous Shipping Routes

High-profile piracy incidents, unpredictable weather conditions, and high traffic density challenges are the main daggers facing shipping professionals as they sail the world’s seas.

In this article, we’ll explore the ten most hazardous waters, uncover the reasons behind their notoriety, and share how you can navigate these dangerous shipping routes confidently.

1. Somalia

The waters off Somalia's coast are infamous in the maritime world and recognized as one of the most hazardous regions for oceanic voyages. 

This area, in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, has become synonymous with danger and uncertainty for seafarers and cargo vessels alike.

The piracy situation in Somalia is complex and has been influenced by various factors. With decades of internal conflict and a lack of effective governance, the region's political instability is an environment where illegal activities like piracy can flourish. 

The limited resources and capabilities of the Somali government, along with the lack of a strong and consistent naval presence in the region, have also made it difficult to combat piracy effectively. These factors, combined with the strategic location of Somalia along busy shipping routes, are the main reasons for piracy incidents in this area. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: The predominant threat here comes from piracy. 

The modern-day Somali pirates are heavily armed, extremely aggressive, and notoriously unpredictable. 

They specialize in hijacking ships, taking crew members hostage, and demanding hefty ransoms for their release. This not only endangers the lives of those aboard but also threatens valuable international cargo.

The Somali coastline stretches over 3,000 kilometers, providing an extensive and often unguarded territory for pirate operations. 

The number of piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia has declined after peaking in 2011 with 212 attacks. However, recent reports from the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a maritime think tank, say that Somali pirates are back on the offensive. 

According to RUSI, there have been more pirate attacks between December of 2023 and February of 2024 than at any other time in the last six years. 

Also, according to the same think tank, it’s very likely that Somali pirates have played a role in the recent hijacking of MV RUEN.

Because of this, the threat of Somali piracy remains high for any vessels sailing through the region.

2. Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea is a part of the Atlantic Ocean, off the western coast of Africa. The coastline stretches from Cape Lopez in Gabon to Cape Palmas in Liberia. The so-called Null Island, defined as the intersection of the Equator with the Prime Meridian (zero degrees latitude and longitude), is in the Gulf of Guinea. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: Piracy in the region remains the main threat to the shipping industry. 

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, dozens of seafarers are kidnapped each year and held in deplorable conditions ashore. 

The 2023 mid-year report from the International Maritime Bureau says there were 65 piracy incidents between January and July of 2023. 

Pirate groups operating around the Gulf of Guinea are determined and resilient. They often conduct their attacks up to 200 nautical miles from the shore, with the main objective being kidnapping and asking for ransom from shipping companies.

Attacks are violent, and seafarers, as well as navy personnel, have been killed in the process. 

The Niger Delta region of the Gulf of Guinea is the epicentre of piracy attacks. According to reports from the Centre for Maritime Law & Security, all of the pirates arrested have been from Nigeria, and the kidnapped personnel have been held in Nigerian territory. 

In 2021, 10 Nigerian pirates were sentenced to a total of 48 years each (four counts of 12 years to be served concurrently) for hijacking the FV HAILU FENG 11 in 2020.

3. Gulf of Aden

The Gulf of Aden is another dangerous shipping route. Located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: The primary danger in the Gulf of Aden comes from piracy and terrorist activities. 

The region's political instability, especially in Somalia, has led to an increase in pirate attacks on commercial vessels. These pirates are often well-armed and unafraid to confront large cargo ships.

Many shipping companies adopted strong security measures to respond to piracy threats, like traveling in convoys and employing armed guards.

According to recent reports, there is a revival of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden. A recent hijacking attempt of the MV LILA NORFOLK, thwarted by the Indian Navy, illustrates that the Gulf of Aden remains dangerous.

International naval forces have also increased their presence in the area to combat piracy. However, these pirates have high tactical skills that continue to threaten and make the Gulf of Aden a risky water.

4. Bay of Biscay

The Bay of Biscay stretches from Spain's northern coast to France's west coast. This European shipping route is renowned for its challenging sailing conditions. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: Especially during the winter, this area often has stormy weather, huge waves (around 20 ft high), and strong winds that are dangerous for ships.  

The unpredictable weather patterns in this region make it a dangerous journey for even the most experienced sailors.

Although weather forecasting and maritime technology have evolved, the Bay of Biscay continues to be a risky shipping route that demands high caution. 

5. Strait of Malacca

The Strait of Malacca, a narrow stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is one of Earth's busiest and most important shipping lanes. But it’s also a dangerous shipping route. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: The main reason for its danger is the risk of piracy. Although piracy incidents have dropped considerably in the last few years, there still have been seven ship attacks in April 2023.

Another thing that makes this shipping route dangerous is its heavy maritime traffic and narrow passages. With its shallow waters and sharp turns, the narrow strait requires skillful navigation. Navigating safely is difficult, and the risks of collisions and accidents are quite high. 

To mitigate these risks, the area has many maritime patrols and stricter safety protocols. 

6. Singapore Strait

The Singapore Strait is strategically important in global shipping. It links the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and poses significant challenges for ships and vessels that pass through. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: Its high traffic density represents the main challenge. 

Many ships, like large cargo vessels and local boats, pass through the Singapore Strait, which creates a complex navigational environment. This high traffic density increases the risks of collisions and accidents. 

Authorities have implemented various safety measures, such as traffic separation schemes and enhanced navigational aids, to reduce the risks. 

However, the combination of natural and man-made challenges continues to make the Singapore Strait a demanding route for global shipping.

Natural challenges include haze from Indonesian forest fires and heavy rains in Singapore, significantly reducing visibility in the Singapore Strait.

Man-made challenges include smuggling, illegal drug trading, human trafficking, and piracy. These transnational crimes pose a continuous threat to maritime security. Also, geopolitical uncertainties, such as the Russia-Ukraine and US-China rivalry, affect the region's maritime security landscape.

According to reports, there have been 38 instances of perpetrators boarding ships to rob them between January and June of 2023. This is an increase compared to 22 incidents in the first half of 2022.

However, these attacks are unlike those off the coast of  Somalia. The report notes that culprits attacked the ships in small numbers, armed with knives and sticks, and in some cases, even unarmed. 

Nevertheless, an increase in the number of incidents is a concern for shipping companies operating in the area.

7. South China Sea

The South China Sea, located between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, is a major Asian trade route. It’s also a region threatened by geopolitical tensions, piracy incidents, and navigational challenges. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: the South China Sea is a region of significant geopolitical tension and military conflict, primarily due to overlapping territorial claims by several countries, including China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. 

These disputes are rooted in the area's rich natural resources, including an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and its strategic importance for global shipping.

This also contributes to this shipping route’s potential for danger. 

The South China Sea has many reefs and islands, some barely above sea level, which can pose significant navigational problems. 

8. Red Sea

The Red Sea is a well-known shipping route for ships travelling to and from Europe to Asia. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: Three main reasons make the Red Sea a dangerous shipping route: political conflicts, pirates, and tricky waters. 

Significant tensions and conflicts are actively unfolding in the Red Sea region, primarily due to Houthi rebels' attacks. These rebels, a Shia Islamist group based in Yemen, have targeted commercial vessels in the Red Sea since November 2023. 

Their actions are disrupting global maritime transportation and trade. By launching these attacks, the Houthis claim to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid their ongoing conflict.

Along with these political risks, the Red Sea has tricky navigation due to its narrow passages and shallow reefs. These natural obstacles can be tough for big ships, especially when the sea is crowded with other vessels.

9. Arabian Sea/Gulf of Oman

The Arabian Sea is a region in the northern Indian Ocean, bordered on the west by the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden and on the northwest by the Gulf of Oman and Iran.

Why it’s considered dangerous: The main threats seafarers face in the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman are piracy and hijacking by Iran. 

Since 2020, according to the US Navy, Iran has harassed, attacked, or seized around 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels.

About a fifth of the world’s supply of crude oil and oil products passes through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman, making this a very important shipping route. 

In June of 2023, the US Navy intervened to stop the seizure of two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman. In May of that year, Iran’s navy seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker. 

Some analysts have claimed this amounts to state-sponsored piracy, while Iran maintains these vessels are seized on suspicion of oil smuggling. 

The White House has also accused Iran of being involved in the recent Houthi attacks against ships in the Red Sea

With tensions between Iran and the West unlikely to end anytime soon, the geopolitical situation in the region remains a threat to the shipping industry. 

10. Black Sea

The Black Sea is an inland sea located on the southeastern edge of the European continent. It borders Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Georgia. 

Why it’s considered dangerous: In 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, starting a war that is still ongoing. This war has turned the Black Sea into a region rife with conflict and danger. 

Since 2022, there have been reports of 24 maritime incidents involving civilian vessels. 

The MV HELT incident is possibly the most dramatic illustration of the current dangers in the Black Sea. On March 2nd, 2022, according to reports, the Russian Navy used the vessel as a “human shield” for cover from Ukrainian fire. 

According to the Ukrainian Navy, the Russians threatened to fire on the  Estonian-owned HELT if it didn’t comply. A day later, the ship sank following an explosion that caused critical damage. The exact circumstances remain unknown, but a naval mine likely hit the vessel. Luckily, all six crew members survived. 

As the Russian attack on Ukraine is still ongoing, the Black Sea remains a dangerous water for shipping companies.

Navigating Dangerous Shipping Routes in 2024

Navigating the world's most dangerous waters for ships requires skill, experience, and the right tools. 

MarineTraffic by Kpler, with its advanced technology, offers invaluable support to mariners embarking on risky routes. 

The Live Map feature of MarineTraffic is a game-changer for safer sailings. It provides real-time data on vessel locations, helping sailors to avoid congested areas and potential hazards. 

With updates on weather conditions and sea traffic, mariners can make informed decisions and adjust their routes to bypass stormy weather or high-risk piracy zones.

Estimate profitability, and plan and track voyages, all in one place with MarineTraffic's Voyage Planner Pro service.

Customise your view of global vessel traffic, drill down and focus on vessels based on type with advanced filtering, and get more control - switch vessel type layers on and off, or adjust their opacity, with MarineTraffic's Advanced Density Maps.

With this clear overview of sea routes, you can identify the busiest and potentially riskiest areas, avoid congested zones, and reduce the danger of collisions. 

  • Weather Maps: Quickly see weather conditions and forecasts on MarineTraffic’s Live Map and stay updated on potential weather risks and delays. Get a clear view of current wind conditions and wind forecasts for up to 72 hours. 
  • Piracy Zones: Available under Layers. The Piracy Zones layer lets you easily monitor your vessels as they transit through risky areas worldwide.
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Maritime professionals like you are able to support day-to-day and strategic decision-making with extensive container tracking information, and vessel tracking intel, delivered through the Kpler MarineTraffic platform.

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