In the last five weeks of conjecture, confusion and calamity for maritime oil transport along the Strait of Hormuz, there has been a consistent, calm explanatory source online that Splash has turned to in order to help fathom what has been happening with the six tanker attacks that have brought the world to the brink of war.
For the uninitiated head on over to Twitter and check out @TankerTrackers – and we reckon many of you will quickly cough up for the small fee of $29.99 a month to become a Premium subscriber to this source that mixes expertise, data and satellite imagery to shine a unique light on the tanker trades. According to its website the aim of this portal is to be “a vigilant and impartial watchdog, keeping a close eye on the production, refinement, shipping and trading of crude oil on a global level”.
On May 12, four tankers were struck by limpet mines while anchored off Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. One month and one day later, two other tankers were hit more severely while in transit along the Strait of Hormuz escalating huge tensions between the US and Iran. Throughout this period of frenzied speculation and fear, TankerTrackers.com has served as a top information platform, never rushing to an opinion, always triangulating facts with data and imagery. What’s been noticeable for those that follow these things online, TankerTrackers.com’s traction these past five weeks has been hugely noticeable – and not just by the swathes of new followers on Twitter.
There’s a famous quote from a shipowner, Angeliki Frangou of Navios, that essentially says what’s bad for geopolitics tends to be good for tankers. The same could be said both business- and visibility-wise for TankerTrackers.com in the last month.
“It’s been hectic, to say the least,” admits Samir Madani, TankerTrackers.com’s co-founder.
“Propaganda shapes a lot of misinformed opinions and helps reinforce negative sentiments. We tend to show up with a big bucket of water called evidence, and put out the fire with evidence in the form of maritime data and satellite imagery. That’s the benefit of open-source investigations. Anyone can follow up,” Madani tells Maritime CEO.
People normally turn to TankerTrackers.com for its research on oil exports and geospatial analysis of cloaked oil transfers, but it didn’t take long for many interested parties to request the platform’s independent findings on what has happened in recent weeks in the key oil waterway in the Middle East.
“Sure, it’s all good for our brand,” concedes Madani, before stressing, “but what goes into the schoolchildren’s history books is far more important.” He emphasises that as a concerned father of four small children.
Madani spent the first 20 years of his career in telecom and consumer electronics. Most of his time was spent on troubleshooting complicated technical issues, solving logistical delays, designing new products as well as pitching them to wholesale clients.
Approaching 40 years of age and spending a lot of time on parental leave had him wondering about pastures new. He was busily preoccupied with a very late night hobby of tracking oil tankers and the crowd was captured by what he and two friends were delivering in this niche.
“I knew this was my new calling, so I jumped in with both feet and went full time. No regrets,” Madani says.
From the beginning back in 2016 the intention with TankerTrackers.com was to address the neglected retail end of the oil data market.
“While most brands focus on SMEs, hedge funds and financial institutions, our job is to focus our efforts on the average Joes and Janes of the world who by all rights should be able to afford a heads-up on what goes on in the crazy, busy world of oil. If it takes six weeks for Saudi Arabia to deliver oil to the US, then why should they be the last to know?” Madani says.
The last five weeks – where among other things TankerTrackers.com has been the first to note oil spills from tankers attacked and Iranian tankers appearing in Asia having switched off their AIS in transit – has taught Madani, as well as his subscribers, a lot about his company’s capabilities.
“I’ll admit that in the beginning, it’s very easy to jump the gun by drawing conclusions on little unverified data, but once you pass that learning curve, you get the hang of keeping it cool and patiently making sure that every tidbit of information holds water,” Madani says.
Data and imagery often show events in a very different light to comments made by officials both on or off the record, Madani says while touching on the issue of fake news in today’s heightened war-prone situation in the Middle East that sees US and Iranian naval forces squaring off.
Madani’s company is readying to launch a proper data portal. The portal will automate its delivery of oil exports reports, freeing up the team’s capacity to take on more countries to track. It also offers consultancy services, in particular with tracking tricky tankers that tend to go dark.
“Many brands in this field want to focus on establishing new business verticals such as refined products, and shouldn’t have to dedicate a lot of extra eyes on doing what we’re already specialising in,” Madani suggests.
TankerTrackers.com remains a small, focused team for the time being – it knows which battles it can win.
“We never sought out to track all of the world’s oil exporters because we’d be spread too thin and have to rely entirely on automated tracking,” Madani says, explaining: “We don’t trust this form of tracking as many vessel operators know how to fool such systems by switching off their AIS transponders when making cloaked deliveries/transfers. Once that happens, we have to switch to satellite imagery and additional data sources to figure out which vessels were involved, and what they were doing.”
Looking at Iran as a case example, their exports were about +95% transparent prior to the announcement of sanctions in May 2018, however at this current point in time, that number has plummeted to virtually 0%, according to TankerTrackers.com. However, the Iranians are still shipping oil out, but the only way to spot them is visually, Madani says.
“We might work with data science, but what we do is a true form of art, and often the centrepiece of our research that attracts an audience. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words,” he concludes before returning to a battery of satellite images in front of him.
We can see that #KokukaCourageous is now in anchorage of Fujairah while #FrontAltair is being tugged to most likely a drydock on UAE’s west coast. When the Saudi VLCC “ARSAN” was struck in the Red Sea last year, she was taken to Bahrain. This concludes our coverage. Thank you! pic.twitter.com/IqVQtSww72
— TankerTrackers.com, Inc.⚓️🛢 (@TankerTrackers) June 16, 2019
We believe that we are looking at a POSSIBLE fuel oil spill as a result of the purported sabotage caused to the Saudi VLCC supertanker, AMJAD. Though she is empty of crude oil, there is fuel oil aboard. If our calc is right, this is no less than 235 barrels spilled. #OOTT pic.twitter.com/69eo0POuED
— TankerTrackers.com, Inc.⚓️🛢 (@TankerTrackers) May 20, 2019