A Dystopian Netherworld and a Place of Impossible Wonder

How best can journalism render a realm that is so foreign and deliver stories so urgent?

By Ian Urbina

Too big to police, and under no clear international authority, the high seas constitute perhaps the wildest and least understood frontier on the planet. 

Invisible to most of us landlubbers, the diversity of characters offshore is a marvel. The goal of The Outlaw Ocean Podcast series has been to chronicle this gritty place populated by 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. Impunity is the norm not just because of a lack of enforcement but also due to the cast of players out there who, with questionable credentials and motives, are left to take up the slack when governments do little to protect. 

Mostly, the podcast series explored the dark underbelly of this offshore world, where the worst instincts of our human species thrived and flourished. But we also witnessed unparalleled beauty and true spectacle. We met bizarre, sometimes heroic actors in a setting that drowned the senses, a place of brighter sun, louder waves, and stronger wind than we previously knew to exist, as if we had been parachuted into one of those fanciful maps the medieval cartographers dreamed up.

One particular afternoon comes to mind. I stood on the front deck of a ship in the South Atlantic Ocean. Under an apricot sunset, I watched a winged fish fly through the air for hundreds of feet. Moments later, several birds dove into the ocean and swam deep underwater equally as far. That night was cloudless, and with flatness all around me, not a visual obstruction anywhere, the sky was as big as it ever gets. At night, shooting stars left white slashes like chalk lines on a blackboard. The most dazzling streaks, though, were not in the sky but underwater. As fish darted through certain areas, the sea was slashed with glowing blue lines, the result of a mesmerizing defense mechanism of biolumi- nescent plankton that allows them to produce light. 

What grabbed me that day was how much of this place is magically upside down: fish in the air, birds underwater, white streaks above us, blue below. Part of its beauty is its exotic unpredictability. The wonder of it all is magnetic, and each time I returned to land, I felt an intense longing for this place, homesick for a location not my home, despite the suffering I’d seen there.

And yet, many of the environmental and human rights abuses at sea are distinctively urgent, sometimes with life-or-death stakes, a fact that brings not just a distinct gravity to the podcast reporting, but also a journalistic challenge: How can we render these stories with more emotional valence and impact than feasible using words and traditional storytelling tactics? This is why we resorted to pushing the content through other mediums like music, murals, animation and podcast.

In this final episode of the podcast series, we reflect on nearly a decade of reporting on the high seas and explore the primordial lure of the ocean for the human species. We discuss the importance of investigative reporting in a time of clickbait journalism and immersive storytelling in our era of information overload. I offer a more personal and behind-the scenes account of reporting trips mostly done at sea – and how this experience can affect a person, for better and worse.

Lastly, I suggest that if the Outlaw Ocean is to offer any insights on human nature, it tells us about the thin line between civilization and the lack of it – and why better and more governance is essential to the future of our species and the planet. Listen here: