Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Karsten von Hoesslin
As a maritime detective and response consultant, Karsten von Hoesslin has peered into the darkest places at sea. “The oceans aren’t just a location for conducting crime,” he says. “They’re also transit routes for facilitating crimes.” Photo by Darius Bazargan

Coastal Job: Maritime Detective and Response Consultant

Problems with pirates, hijackers, or unsolved high seas murder cases? Karsten von Hoesslin is primed to respond.

Authored by

As told to Sarah Tory

Article body copy

Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Karsten von Hoesslin, an academic-turned-detective and the founder of Remote Operations Agency, works with governments and agencies around the world, responding to high-stakes maritime crises.

There’s a saying that goes, “If you want to kill someone, just do it at sea,” and that phenomenon has always fascinated me. My job is to respond to hijacking and hostage cases at sea, from locating stolen ships and figuring out who’s behind the crime, to recovering the crew and coordinating ransom payments. A few years ago, I started private detective work. Most people in my field come from a military or police background, but I came to it from the academic side. For my master’s degree, I studied the Law of the Sea—a United Nations treaty that attempts to govern the world’s oceans—focusing on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. I shifted to human intelligence for my PhD research, looking at how to infiltrate organized crime networks. After that I started liaising with agencies like coast guards and Interpol, and learning other skills like behavioral profiling, hostage negotiation, and paramedicine.

The most stressful case was the 2012 MT Smyrni hijacking, which holds the world record for the highest ransom ever paid to Somali pirates. The Greek-owned oil tanker was hijacked in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman carrying 135,000 tonnes of oil. All 26 crew were taken hostage. It was the first time I’d commanded a maritime hijacking rescue, and I was responsible for coordinating all operations at sea—from communicating with the ransom negotiators back in London to delivering the money to the pirates. I didn’t sleep for days. Afterward, I noticed that certain parts of my beard had turned gray.

The scariest moment I ever experienced was in Merca, Somalia, on the coast, while I was working another hijacking case. We got to a checkpoint manned by an older man and three kids who were chewing khat [a herbal stimulant]. One of the kids saw me in the back of the SUV and pointed his AK-47 right at me—his pupils were dilated and his finger was on the trigger. I remember thinking that if this kid makes one tiny mistake, I could get killed.

In 2014, a video showing a mass homicide of fishermen in the Indian Ocean went viral on YouTube. I was part of a team that was asked to determine if the vessels involved had any European connections. We established quite early on that they did not, but for me it was very hard to just leave it at that when innocent victims at sea had been murdered. So I started investigating on my own. I established who did it and why they did it, and passed the names on to the Chinese government, since the suspects were all from China. So far, they haven’t arrested anyone.

That case led me to investigate more unsolved homicides in the fishing industry*. Often, fishing is simply a conduit for other criminal acts like smuggling drugs or human trafficking, because on the ocean, you can literally get away with murder.

*Karsten von Hoesslin is currently investigating the suspicious disappearance of a fisheries observer on the high seas that Hakai Magazine covered in the January 2017 story “The Mysterious Disappearance of Keith Davis.”