In today's episode, I speak with New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Urbina. Ian’s investigate journalism about the intersection of the human species and the lawless frontier of the open ocean, most often appears in the new york times, but he frequently writes for the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and culminated in his Times bestseller, “The Outlaw Ocean."
Most often, the people I speak with in this show have a deep passion for the ocean itself and somehow deviate their lives to it. What was intersection about Ian, and why I reached out, was for a slightly different perspective, in particular how the ocean itself shapes human beings, particularly the culture and nature of those who work and live their lives on the open seas.
Most of this takes place in International waters, starting just 12 miles offshore, where no country’s laws are in effect and there is no real jurisdiction protecting workers such as fishermen or long haul cargo shippers, nor the world’s marine life.
Ian readily admits his work trawls darker areas of the human experience as he works to expose the hidden exploitation of sea workers and the ocean environment. But I also found Ian to be a very smart and incredibly warm person, who talked about his path to the work he does, why “here be dragons” resonated with him and an incredible moment in the north Atlantic when the world turned upside down for him.
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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of this series, we'll talk to all sorts of people, and in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist whose work has taken him deep into the darker realms of what he calls "the outlaw ocean." Hello. This is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.
Jason Elias: (00:52)
In today's episode, I speak with New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ian Urbina. Ian's investigative journalism focuses on the intersection of the human species and the lawless frontier of the open ocean. His work most often appears in The New York Times, but he frequently writes for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, culminating in his New York Times Bestseller, The Outlaw Ocean.
Jason Elias: (01:15)
The people I speak with in this show most often have a deep passion for the ocean environment and dedicate their lives to it in some way. What was interesting about Ian and why I reach out was for a slightly different perspective, particularly around how the ocean shapes human culture and the nature of those who work and live their lives on it. This can be a dark place. Most of this takes place in international waters starting just 12 miles offshore, where no country's laws are in effect, and there is no real jurisdiction protecting workers, such fishermen, or long-haul cargo shippers, nor the world's marine life. Ian readily admits his work trawls hidden areas of the human experience as he works to expose the exploitation of both ocean workers and the environment itself, and yet I found Ian to be an incredibly warm person who talked about his path to the work he does, why the spaces on a map resonated with him, and an incredible moment in the North Atlantic when the world turned upside down.
Ian Urbina: (02:12)
My name is Ian Urbina. I'm a journalist and I focus on crimes at sea, especially human rights, environmental, and labor abuses that occur on the ocean around the world.
Jason Elias: (02:23)
You've obviously made your career focused on ocean issues. When did you first realize your connection to the ocean and how did that manifest?
Ian Urbina: (02:32)
I never grew up on the water in any real way, but whenever I would encounter a map of the world, I would always look at the blue and the farthest-off specks in the blue and wonder, "What is that place like? What it like to be a teenager there. How do you get there? What if planes don't come every week?", just lots of questions about the people that live so remotely in that watery desert. That was the extent of my enamorment with the ocean.
Ian Urbina: (02:58)
The real exposure came when I was doing doctoral work at the University of Chicago one cold winter and I decided to take several months off and take a job to be a deckhand on a research vessel anchored in Singapore. We never left port, and so I was living on this boat, and for those three months, I was spending a lot of time with seafarers. These were long-haul fishermen, tuna longliner, Indonesian deckhands, all the way up to Geraldo Rivera's superyacht, so it's a really mixed bunch.
Ian Urbina: (03:37)
I was anthropologically entranced by those people, almost like a diaspora transient tribe of people. They had everything that a tribe has. They had their own language, their own stories, their own hierarchy, their own rules, their own customs, their own relationship with time, and their own crime. What I saw in these guys that can, or yachtsman, or merchant marine, was this love of living apart from everyone else, a sort of anti-social element, a sense of daring, but also, an internal exploration of survival in possibly long periods of quiet and going to these extreme edges of civilization, and maybe even beyond, and then staying there, how do they survive, and how those realms affect their mental health and worldview.
Ian Urbina: (04:30)
I always wanted to be Jane Goodall growing up. When I look back on why, it wasn't her interaction with animals, it was her exploration of these far-off worlds. To some degree, I see the oceans as the extreme version of that. It is space travel on Earth. It is this realm that is awe-inspiring and scary and mystical and utterly different. A friend of mine defined the word "sublime" as a combination, of profound and fraught, both beautiful and fearful. That which is sublime pulls in both balances. My outlook on that place is that it is truly sublime. It's one of the most intense forms of sublime I've encountered. That attracted me. That space challenges you in ways that I really respected and that's what motivated me once I was at The New York Times to write about them again.
Jason Elias: (05:27)
You were a cultural anthropologist when you went to Singapore and then you became a journalist later on in life. What is it you find so interesting about exploring those subterranean channels that drive human society, particularly on the ocean, then why do you feel the need to share that with others?
Ian Urbina: (05:45)
When I went to grad school, I was in the history department. I was going to do what's called "intellectual history" and I was super interested in the history of ideas and I was wanting to do my specialty on the concept of human nature and what makes us tick. I feel like the exploration of the outlaw ocean is anthropologically an attempt to chronicle this tribe of people from whom you rarely hear in this space where few people go, but it's also an exploration of a deep structure to what makes us tick, and quite especially the line between civilization and the lack of it, that I'm exploring the darker side of this tribe and its behaviors is, to some degree, quintessential public service investigative journalism.
Ian Urbina: (06:28)
I want to reveal bad stuff that's happening so it can get fixed. That's what you do as an investigative journalist, but I'm also trying to mine those stories for something deeper, it's all against this beautiful, awe-inspiring backdrop, but most of what I focus on is not beautiful or awe-inspiring, it's quite the underbelly, and it's really man's and humanity demand and why is it happening up there, and it adds up to a call for better governance. We as animals really need enforced rules on us and the outlaw ocean is, in some ways, is a space where we don't have real, true governance.
Jason Elias: (07:02)
I'm a collector and lover of antiquarian maps. I have a number of maps in my house from the 17th and 18th centuries that show parts of the world carved up by the colonial powers and then blank areas on the map that simply indicate a place where no Western society is yet. What's interesting and based on what you're saying is that in this time where we think everything is connected, you're actually saying there are large parts of the world that are not, that are still those blank places on the map, and they simply start 12 miles offshore in the international waters.
Ian Urbina: (07:36)
On those maps I mentioned in the book is like, "Here be dragons." I so enamored with that "Here be dragons" on these old maps. That's just way out there and we're not sure what's out there. That is the emblem of the outlaw ocean. In this moment, when we think everything has been mapped, there are no new stories, there's no place that no one's gone, with our handheld devices, kind of know everything, it's all filmed. Not true. All of that is not true. Huge swaths of the planet, millions of people completely off radar, and I think that's one of the things that make this reporting really attractive to me.
Ian Urbina: (08:22)
I was really interested in how the experience of ocean travel, especially long periods of it, maybe even a lifetime of it, can change a person in their core. I would go across the categories. It changes your biology. There's seasickness and landsickness. Landsickness is the pendulum in your ear won't readjust when you come back on land. What's interesting is a lot of people that are let seasick do get landsick. The experience of getting landsickness, it's like drunken bed spins standing up. You feel everything's moving and it's often called "sway." Sometimes you even start counter swaying and people are like, "Why are you rocking?" Some people don't even ever readjust. It's amazing that just being in this realm where the physics are different can change your inner biology.
Ian Urbina: (09:25)
I think it changes your psychology. I saw this with myself. The stereotype of the scraggly, grumpy fish captain is based on something true. My theory is that that archetype character is someone who's been out there so long and the out there is a self-imposed solitary confinement. By having spent such long periods in places that are so quiet, so little communication between people, their relationship with light and sound and spaces has changed. They come back onshore and they don't adjust well. When you're at sea, everything is regimented in a different sort of way. You go out into this realm and you really realize you're divorced from so many things. You can't internet, you can't email, or text with people for long periods, and not even sure what day it is, and kind of know roughly what time it is. You start having deeper conversations in your head.
Ian Urbina: (10:38)
There's a part in the book where I talk about what one guy referred to as "soul whispers." In my normal life here, at best, I maybe have a three-sentence conversation with myself in my head. When I'm at sea, I can be at, for two hours, quietly staring off into space, having a full-on conversation with myself. It's beautiful, but it's dangerous because that's not what life on land is like. These are ways in which I do think people change.
Jason Elias: (11:21)
There's obviously something about the intersection of the ocean environment and humanity that you find very appealing and that you like exploring what impact that environment has on human society, human culture, human beings themselves, but outside someone who has as an interest in that, why should everyone else care about the outlaw ocean?
Ian Urbina: (11:43)
I think the cliche but no less true answer has to be said, at some basic, moral level, if you think of yourself as a human and therefore you do care about other humans, even if they're different color, or class, nationality, and far away, if really bad things are happening to other humans or green life, then just on an ethical level, you probably should care. But if that doesn't move you, then there's a sort of self-interested, utilitarian, practical level, which is this shit comes back to get you. We are not disconnected.
Ian Urbina: (12:17)
I think climate change is really forcing a reckoning on the planet as disconnected as we might think, it does catch up with you. Keep dumping carbon in the air, it's going to catch up with you. You keep dumping plastic and oil in the oceans, it's going to catch up with you. It might be mercury levels and cancer spikes when you're eating your tuna, or it might be destabilization in this country because you pillage their waters, and now, we're sending in Marines, and one of them is your son. It's going to catch up with you one way or another.
Ian Urbina: (12:45)
It's a 70-variable equation. It's not a simple transaction, but it is real, the causality connection is real between geopolitical stability, food security, environmental stability, personal health. All these things connect with the fate of the oceans. Not to mention if the oceans provide 50% of the air we breathe and they filter 50% of the air we breathe and that doesn't work when the oceans are dead because the stuff that filters it are living things in the oceans, not just the water, and we're rapidly killing everything in the water, we're going to have a problem just breathing at some point soon. All of these things are born out by science.
Ian Urbina: (13:23)
Now, the big problem is the time mark. We all think three months, three weeks, maybe three years, but 13 years, 30 years, that's harder for us to fathom, and care about. One of the key ways in which this goes back to the ethical thing, that $1.99 skipjack can of tuna is impossible. You look at it and you're like, "Wait, how could you possibly pull a fish from the other side of the world, get it here to my shelf in seven days, and it only costs $1.99? How is that possible?" It's not. There's all these hidden costs in there, from sea slavery, to dumping, to illegal fishing, to carbon pollution that have gotten offloaded to other poor people, or either all of us, just not the corporate investors, and that's going to catch up with us, so you are kind of complicit, unfortunately, in these crimes by buying the $1.99 can of tuna and just hoping for the best, because you're funneling money into a system that's accelerating these problems.
Jason Elias: (14:18)
Well, it's obvious you do care about the impact the outlaw ocean has on us as a human species, and you're doing your part to try to mitigate that, but is there one moment where you felt deeply connected, or removed in some way by being out on the ocean?
Ian Urbina: (14:40)
I'm looking at my map now. I think I was somewhere out in the North Atlantic. It was a pretty clear night. I was on a Greenpeace ship. This was part of one of their campaigns and I was just there capturing that story. I was on the back of the ship and I was just passing time. It was a really clear night and there was maybe six-foot swells, not flat, but not crazy. I remember just pondering what a weird place this was. Then I started leaning into the weird. It's not just weird, it's kind of downright upside down. I started thinking about what I meant by that. In front of me were these birds that were flying and then diving and disappearing under the water for impossibly long periods, a good minute underwater, because I would watch for where they would pop up, and they would be way far away, and then they'd come flying out of the water.
Ian Urbina: (15:59)
Then on the other side of the boat, you had these fish that were coming out of the water, and they had wings and they were flying across the deck. These were flying fish. I thought, "Okay, so you got birds that are swimming underwater, and so the fish were coming out of the water and occupying the sky," and then I was like, "Okay, well, there is an example of just how upside down things are."
Ian Urbina: (16:26)
Then I was like, "Look at the sky." It was an unbelievably clear sky and you could see shooting stars all over the place and they were like white streaks of chalk on a blackboard. Then I was like, "Oh, that's just amazing that you can see that many," and I'd just stare for 10 seconds, I'm going to see one.
Ian Urbina: (16:47)
Then I looked underneath the water and there was a school of some sort of fish that was going through a cluster of bioluminescence. When the fish went through that cloud, They created these blue underwater streaks. I remember looking and trying to see if I could capture in this same frame of vision the white streaks in the sky and the blue streaks underwater. I could. I remember thinking, "I can't even tell where the water ends and the sky begins," and I just thought that whole five minutes of what came into my eyes sums up the marvel and Alice in Wonderland nature of this place.
Jason Elias: (17:52)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you?
Ian Urbina: (18:02)
The ocean, for me, is this impossibly sprawling, surprisingly lively frontier.
Jason Elias: (18:15)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep...
Speaker 3: (18:22)
To make beautiful photographs, you are bearing witness, and so yes, we do have a responsibility to share the wonder and the amazement of underwater life, and that's the biggest gift.
Jason Elias: (18:33)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos, and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.
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