December 2019, Nonfiction

The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina. August 20, 2019. Alfred A. Knopf, 544 p. ISBN: 9780451492944.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

A riveting, adrenaline-fueled tour of a vast, lawless and rampantly criminal world that few have ever seen: the high seas.

There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.

Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways — drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world. Through their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy, he uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation that emanates from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, and on which the world’s economies rely.

Both a gripping adventure story and a stunning exposé, this unique work of reportage brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Abortion, Criminal culture, Cruelty to animals, Racism, Rape, Strong language, Violence


Book Trailer


Booklist starred (August 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 22))
“We know shockingly little about the sea,” states Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Urbina, who proves his assertion many times over in this tour de force of intrepid global inquiry. The crimes committed on the high seas run a horrifying gamut of enslavement, poaching, torture, murder, piracy, and environmental decimation, all stoked by fraud and corruption. Urbina witnessed such outrages at tremendous personal risk, often aboard filthy illegal fishing boats manned by captive and abused workers. He illuminates the many loopholes through which profiteers maneuver in this realm of ruthlessness and impunity, where young Asian men are trapped into debt bondage, bought and sold, forced into dangerous and debilitating labor, and brutally detained. Here, too, are profiles of a wily ship repo man, and of courageous activists trying to help “sea slaves” and boldly confronting illegal fishing operations. With precision, drama, and intimacy, Urbina recounts his role in a dangerous at-sea standoff between Indonesian and Vietnamese authorities, a frightening escape from Somalia, and many other harrowing situations, and describes his tenuous network of sources, translators, fixers, and spies. His biggest fear is that his risky quest may do harm to people rather than good, but there is no doubt that the bravely gleaned and galvanizing facts about maritime savagery and brewing catastrophes, which he so vividly and cogently presents, coalesce into an exposé of immense magnitude and consequence.

Kirkus Reviews starred (July 15, 2019)
Anarchy reigns on the high seas as a New York Times investigative reporter travels the world’s oceans.Early on, Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winner Urbina (Life’s Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can’t Take It Anymore, 2005) writes that the stories he turned up while roaming from port to port “felt less like journalism than an attention deficit disorder,” so bewildering and untidy did they seem, so without unalloyed heroes and villains. One figure in the narrative, for instance, is a law-trained, poetry-writing sailor whose job is to sneak into ports where ships have been impounded and, on behalf of their owners, steal those ships away; the work is dangerous and utterly demanding. “He struck me as an older Tintin,” writes the author. The good guys in the story are beleaguered, outnumbered, and often outmaneuvered. As Urbina writes of Palau’s efforts to halt maritime poaching, a former captain of an interdicted pirate ship arrested in 2016 was back as an ordinary deckhand six months later, making the effort “more myth of Sisyphus than David and Goliath.” If there are villains in the story, they are perhaps the unnamed owners of fishing fleets that put out to sea for long periods of time, for they are inspected and policed only in port. Urbina engagingly chronicles his travels from one trouble spot to another: oil rigs erected on continental shelves, just outside the territorial zones of neighboring nations and subject to little governance; pirate-rich Somalia, where he became a persona non grata; and Djibouti, one of the places where ship owners—in this case of a Thai fleet—“shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.” Urbina’s book ranks alongside those by Mark Bowden and Sebastian Junger, fraught with peril and laced with beer, the smell of sea air, and constant bouts of gaming an inept system. A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

About the Author

Ian Urbina is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. He has degrees in history from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and his writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesThe GuardianHarper’s, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, son, stepdaughter, and a nuisance of a dog.


Teacher Resources

The Outlaw Ocean website

Around the Web

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