The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 7

The Spell of the Sea


Water Moving, Whale Noises, and Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: I took a trip to this tiny spit of an island called Carlos III, which is the southernmost point of Patagonia, so way down on the bottom of the planet.

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: It's a strange sanctuary that the government has set aside for whale scientists to observe an assortment of different types of whales that seem, for reasons they're not entirely sure, to come to the island and nest and mate and rest.

Pensive Music and Whale Noises

Ian Urbina: One night I woke up, couldn't sleep, and climbed out of my little tent and right in front of me in the bay, there were 12 to 15 sperm whales, and they were sleeping.

Pensive Music and Whale Noises

Ian Urbina: As the whales sleep, they inhale, they begin to sink down into the water. Sometimes they sink and float for upwards of 20 minutes…

Water Bubbling

Ian Urbina: And then they float back up to the surface, and they exhale. And the exhale is this long geyser of mist. I was so close that I could smell their breath. You know, I could smell the exhale. They're at the surface only for about 6 seconds and then they sink again.

Ominous Music and Whale Noises

Ian Urbina: The sense of marvel I had at that moment had a little aftertaste of dread, and it's a dread that I experienced throughout this reporting. It's the dread of how the hell am I going to render this to people who haven't witnessed it because it's going to sound made up, you know, just how odd and mysterious and foreign and wondrous it can be.

Ethereal Music and Whale Noises

Ian Urbina: Episode seven. The Spell of the Sea.

Ethereal Music and Whale Noises

Waves Crashing and Boat Engine Whirring

Ian Urbina: So I left Carlos III and headed south from the southern tip of Patagonia toward Antarctica through the Southern Ocean. And to do that trip, you have to pass through this perilous zone called Drake's Passage. If you were to fly a plane all the way around the bottom of the planet, there's no land that obstructs waves or winds, and they can build up huge speeds and size. So when you cross Drake's passage, you're encountering those accumulated forces and they're really perilous.

Waves Crashing, Shouting, and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: There's this saying about the brutality of these waters, you know, latitudinally on the planet below 40, there's no law and below 50, there's no God. In other words, you're on your own.

Shouting and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: When you're on a ship in the middle of nowhere during a storm, you really have an out-of-body experience. You start feeling yourself as though you're an inanimate object. You're a ping pong ball that's floating in a bathtub. You’re a coin in a dryer.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: These boats are often either all metal or mostly metal and fiberglass. Sometimes you’re on wood boats. But if you think of those three materials-fiberglass, wood, metal-it's loud. You know, it makes really strange, daunting sounds.

Boat Creaking

Ian Urbina: And then within the walls, there's often all sorts of loose stuff. You know, like imagine if you dumped bolts and screws loosely into the door of your car and then you were driving on a bumpy road, and it just makes sort of for a house of horrors feel.

Intense Music and Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: You know, at one point I got out of my seat and made my way through the ship because I wanted to get something from my cabin. And I went through, you know, the lower deck and came across a guy in the mess hall. And we were both holding on to the walls and railings and whatnot. He let go at just the wrong moment, and the guy it was as if like an aggressive football player of a ghost had just broadsided him. He just flew across the room and went crashing into a bunch of canisters on the other side that had been tethered. And he got right up, you know, and shook it off and laughed. But just seeing the invisible force throw someone across the room, even though no one had laid hands on him was amazing.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: One of the things I marveled at in the culture of seafarers generally was this almost existential resignation, this sort of shrugging to fate that seemed to be pervasive in the psychology and the culture of people that spent long times at sea. And I started to understand that better when I went through the storm. This resignation is something that you can't learn by someone describing it to you. You can't think it into existence. It's something, really, that you feel. And once you've felt it, you know it. And no place did I feel it more intensely than in that storm.

Tense Music

Bren Smith: It's so hard to communicate what it's like out there, right? You need to talk bigger in order to kind of just shake people and people know, like, it's unreal out there.

Ian Urbina: I've met no shortage of colorful characters in this reporting, and one that really stuck out for me was Bren Smith.

Bren Smith: My name is Bren Smith, and I'm a lifelong commercial fisherman and over the years ended up as a regenerative ocean farmer here in Long Island Sound.

Ian Urbina: Bren runs this organization called Green Wave that is highly innovative in ocean farming and finding more sustainable ways to, to feed people. He's a saltwater-in-the-veins type guy, and he's the embodiment of everything I came to respect and admire about seafarers.

Laughing, Waves Crashing, and Somber Music

Bren Smith: What comes to mind when I think about the ocean and working on it is like humility, right? As a fisherman, you have so little control over your life: how many fish you're going to catch, what the weather's going to be like. And at any point, I mean, you know, boats go down all the time, and no matter how big the boat is, being in a 50 foot swell is just, you know, the rage and the anger of-and the overpowering force, it just makes you feel helpless and humble. And I think that's a good emotion to have. I wish more people felt that level of humility when they think about the planet.

Somber Music

Upbeat Music

Ian Urbina: One of the things I really liked about seafarer culture was this kind of gritty bluntness that you found often in captains and officers and deckhands. What they had to say were often profound, poetic, wise, but they said it in such a straight fashion, and I really value that.

Pensive Music

Bren Smith: What I wanted to be growing up was a fisherman. I didn't want to be an astronaut or anything else. I just, I wanted to be like my neighbors. People own their own boats. They succeeded and failed on their own terms. They didn't have a boss. And they had this pride of feeding the community, and that was just something I wanted. I wanted one of these jobs that people write and sing songs about, like, you know, they’re coal workers, farmers, steelworkers, and fishermen that people-there are all these shanties and folk songs about, and there aren't any good songs about lawyers and Facebook employees, but there are songs about these folks that build power and feed the country. So that's why I wanted to be.

Pensive Music

Bren Smith: So I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and headed out to sea. I fished in (Indistinct) Gloucester. I was doing lobster, tuna, so you name it, I fished it and it was the best job I ever had, ever will have.

Pensive Music and Indistinct Chatter

Bren Smith: There's this release that happens in the sea where like the walls disappear, the people watching you disappear, like you just feel so boxed in your land. And then you come in the ocean, and it's just endless expanse as far as you can see. And you just heart opens up and like, yet you kind of stand straighter. Like, at least I do. I just feel like this weight lifted off of me, and I just feel like I can do whatever the (redacted) I want. (Laughter) Just this, just this feeling. Like, yeah, they got rules. But those rules are-they can't catch me out here, right? They can't do anything to me. I'll see them coming. And so there is this really like you, like you won't get busted. That either brings out, I found, the best in people or the worst in people. Like, there's no middle ground out in the ocean. It's, it's a world of extremes, one way or the other. And that I, you know, go back to what makes fishermen different is they just like other people don't get to taste that level of freedom. And there is, there's just nothing. Nothing like it.

Pensive Music and Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: There were, throughout the reporting, so many deckhands that have experienced such awful things: abandonment, rape, murder, beatings, you name it. And almost to a man, these guys, after recounting to me what they went through, would finish up by saying that they intend to go back out. And I was always baffled by that at some level. And the simplistic explanation for it is desperation, poverty, need. And I think that's surely one factor, but it's not the only or even the most significant factor. I think what really draws these folks back, it's this changed outlook and emotional status that happens when you spend time out there, and you want to get back to it.

Somber Music and Shouting

Bren Smith: You'll hear people talk about the draw of the sea and it's a spell, the spell that it casts on you and stuff like that and that, that's really, really true. I mean, the moment I headed out on the fishing boats, my entire life has been about returning to the ocean. I've been pushed off when the cod stocks crashed. When I tried to, you know, salmon farming, things like that, there has been only one place where, where I ever wanted to be and any job I wanted, and it was, it was, you know, floating around on a boat, working.

Somber Music and Shouting

Bren Smith: That pace. I just, it's hard to describe. It's the pacing of the work that makes it so engaging. And you have that much silence, and you’re doing the same thing for years and years at a time, same sort of activity. You're just, there's a depth that comes to your life, and you get to think about it a lot. You get to think about your life and just be still and you know it's good for you.

Ominous Music, Indistinct Chatter, and Birds Squawking


Ian Urbina: Before I became a journalist, I was an anthropologist. I was in a doctoral program. I was sort of grinding my way through, decided I wanted to step away from doctoral work and do something very different for a little while, just clear my head. And so I decided “I'm going to go get a job as an anthropologist working on a research vessel for three, six, nine months.” I had not spent any time at sea ever before.

Piano Playing

Ian Urbina: I became riveted by this sort of transient diaspora tribe of people that share a culture and language and lore and, and humor and superstitions. The stories these guys would tell just captivated me. And I thought, “Wow, how have I not read about this stuff before? It's just striking.” And I couldn't ever put that fascination away.

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: This reporting is definitely the most physically demanding, emotionally demanding reporting that I've ever done. I never, growing up, spent time on boats, so I had no initial awareness of whether I would be more or less susceptible to seasickness. Much to my delight, I found out early on during the reporting that I was unusually immune to seasickness, and a doctor later told me that it's some strange quirk of my inner ear or whatever, but it was a great luxury because where other folks were getting sick, I rarely, if ever, did. The big, you know, downside of that was that while I didn't get sick at sea, I did get sick on land with something called land sickness, the opposite of seasickness or sway.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: This was essentially this funny thing, well studied and documented, where some people have an inner ear that allows them to acclimate quickly at sea. But then the pendulum won't switch back. So when they get back on land, their body still thinks they're at sea. And you have the equivalent of what I would say is like bed spins, drunken bed spins, but standing up. So the world is moving. You actually feel like you're still on a ship.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: Your head feels really queasy, and you throw up, and it gets more intense the more cases you have of it. And so I was doing this reporting for years and, you know, it got really bad. I would sometimes step back and within 12 hours of being on shore, I was throwing up, and it just felt like a funny metaphor for my relationship, almost the abusive relationship, I had with the sea where it had captured me, and it was like your body holding on to the memory of a place that you'd already left.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: When I got back from these long reporting trips, I noticed changes. I ate faster. For example, it was not a meal. It was something to get done. At night, I found the bed too big. I was used to sleeping in these tiny small cubbies, and sleeping in a big bed again felt vulnerable and exposed. I had a different relationship with chit-chat, small talk. Just the sheer quantity of words spoken, written, you know, coming at me. I had grown accustomed to not having to deal with so much interaction and conversation. I had sort of leaned into the silence at sea.

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: I have a pretty tolerant family, my son, my wife. And they all noticed that I was, I was more aloof. I was less able or prone to carrying myself in social settings. I just felt like a very different person. And, you know, I would get back from these long trips and be exhausted and in many ways emotionally fairly battered by much of what I had covered. And yet, before long, I was already thinking about when can I get back out there?

Tense Music, Shouting, and Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: At the outset, this was just another beat, you know, journalistic beat, storyline series that I intended to do maybe a year, year and a half, and then move on to the next topic. But with time, with exposure, it became something else entirely. The water comes in…

Crew Member: Yes. Even here, here.

Ian Urbina: Have you seen this? This is six guys sleep in here. Peter! And the water, the water comes in at night…You couldn't help become more immersed and sort of feel responsible for those people. You know, that space, and it shows up in subtle ways, you know? So when I'm on the ship and we're going to be there for a couple of weeks, and deckhands see that I have some pills, happen to be multivitamins but they don't know that, you know, they come to assume that I'm essentially a doctor, you know, like relative to their access to meds. And so they're coming to me for, you know, diagnosis and treatment of this cut or that infection or that pain in their stomach or this headache or whatever and wondering what they should do about it. Do I have anything for it? And so I sort of became almost like an honorary EMT, and my med kit grew exponentially as the years went on doing this. These sorts of interactions you can't be dismissive of. You're going to be there for a while. You owe it to them to give them an honest hearing and maybe even try to help them. And it sort of changes your relationship to that firewall between journalist and something else.

Speech in Foreign Language

Ian Urbina: I realized in my core that I wanted to stick with this line of reporting, but I was told by my editors, and for very good reason, my editors at the New York Times said, “Look, you've been doing it to two, two and a half years. It's time to move on. We need to move you around. We don't want you to sink in. We've got a lot of other worthy targets that we need investigative reporters to be covering.” So I reached this moment where I realized that the only way I could keep doing this type of reporting is if I quit the Times and set out and created my own organization.

Broadcaster #1: In what began as an award winning series in 2015 in The New York Times and a resulting book, The Outlaw Ocean is a nonprofit journalism organization that produces high impact investigative stories about lawlessness at sea and the diversity of environmental, human rights, and labor abuses occurring offshore around the world. So is this the situation everywhere or is it in certain locations or certain types of fisheries?

Ian Urbina Certain locations, certain countries, you know…my decision to leave the paper was huge, you know? I had never worked at a newspaper other than The New York Times my whole career. I had a kid headed to college, and I was considering leaving a pretty amazing job with a steady salary to something uncertain. But the topic had gotten under my skin, and I wanted to keep going back out there, and I was going to change my life and my profession to make that possible.

Chanting and Tense Music

Water Moving

Ian Urbina: I began on this reporting almost a decade ago, and in that time, some things have started to improve. For example, with the murder investigation, it took eight long, frustrating years. But this year, the captain was finally prosecuted and was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

Broadcaster #2: Prosecutors say the suspect, a Chinese national, admitted ordering the killings while captaining the Taiwanese vessel. The suspect has been indicted on homicide and gun control charges, according to local media reports. The killings were exposed…

Ian Urbina: In the case of sea slavery in Thailand, you do have to give some credit to the government. They are doing more at sea and in port inspections, and they are proceeding to prosecute some of the worst offenders of human slavery.

Unknown Man: So it's not the Thai government and all that Thai agency concerned is quite worried about that problem.

Unknown Man: Are determined to work further, to pursue the matter vigorously in order to rid the country of this modern slavery.

Ian Urbina: You look to a place like New Zealand which discovered sea slavery in its own waters, and they took bold steps to kick out all the foreign vessels where this was occurring. And this was the first country that had taken such a bold stance. So, you know, things are getting better in some places, but in many other places, in many other ways, things are getting worse.

Pensive Music and Shouting

Unknown Man: You guys ready? Get ready on the hoses. Get your helmets on and put your stuff on.

Unknown Man: They start to throw, they start to throw things.

Shouting, Sirens, and Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: Suicide and depression rates for seafarers are epidemic. There's more violence at sea than there ever was before, and there are far more weapons.

Broadcaster #3: Two Koreans were killed on a Korean deep sea fishing vessel operating in the Indian Ocean near the coast of Seychelles, located east of the African mainland.

Unknown Man: Every week, every second week, we still pick up dead people, either murdered, or stabbed, or nobody’s picked them up

Gunshot and Gun Reloading

Ian Urbina: The men at sea are competing for dwindling resources, which only increases the drive towards legality. The Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs is demolished.

Broadcaster #4: The Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs is demolished. 31 illegal fishing boats…

Broadcaster #5: Sunk a Chinese fishing trawler after a territorial waters dispute.

Broadcaster #6: A Filipino fishing boat was anchored in the South China Sea when a Chinese trawler hit it, sank it, and took off. A 22-man crew left for dead on the high seas.

Pensive Music

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: Over the course of my reporting, it became harder to think of this place in good guy, bad guy narratives. You look at Somali piracy, and these are the worst kinds of pirates, you know, in the modern era. And yet even these guys, at least in the early stages of Somali piracy, themselves weren't just pirates. They initially were fishermen that had been put out of work and, through desperation, ended up engaging in piracy and extortion. In extreme conditions, you rarely are going to find simple black and white dichotomies between guilty and innocent or good and evil.

Somber Music and Voice Echoing

Ian Urbina: I think we in the West like to think that modernity, civilization, the growth of law and state have stamped out certain things. When you get out there, you begin to question that core assumption of modern civilization, the core assumption of whether we as humans internally have limits on how we will behave. When we don't have the threat of consequences, these core assumptions about human nature and society get a bit rattled, I'll say, out there, because you see a certain level of depravity that you thought was gone.

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: There's a quote by W.H. Auden that I think encapsulates this realm. He wrote, “The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder, out of which civilization has emerged, and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is liable to relapse.” I think there's a fine line between civilization and the lack of it. And the exploration of this frontier is an attempt to look at how thin that line is and what's on the other side.

Pensive Music


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

For CBC Podcasts, Anna Ashity is the coordinating producer, and Emilie Quesnel is the Digital Producer. Additional sound mixing is by Esteban Cuevas. Daemon Fairless is senior producer. Tanya Springer is Senior Manager, and Arif Noorani is the Director of CBC Podcasts.

For the LA Times, Jazmin Aguilera is the Head of Audio, Heba Elorbany is the Executive Producer of podcasts, Brandon Sides is Creative Director of consumer marketing. Kayla Bell is Product Marketing Manager. Lauren Rocha is the integrated media manager, Makayla Hartter and Patricia Gardiner are project managers in consumer marketing, and Darius Derakshan is the Director of advertising for the LA Times.

This episode features music by: Bokki, Jai-Jagdeesh, Antarctic Wastelands, Sjors Mans, Brothel and J.V., Dear Gravity, Patricia Spero, Smoke Trees, Melorman, and Himuro Yoshiteru.

The music in the series comes from The Outlaw Ocean Music Project. This music is really special to me; it's part of an effort from musicians all over the world who donated their time and talent to put a soundtrack to the reporting we do. Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Scott Coatsworth, Bret Brady, Matthew Stevens, Gammatone, and Fábio Nascimento, who is also my camera operator and all weather travel companion and records music under the name Serino.

Thank you to all the guests who volunteered to be interviewed. They are in order of appearance: Duncan Copeland, Executive Director of Trygg Mat Tracking; Kevin Thompson, CEO of Sextant Group; Tony Long, CEO of Global Fishing Watch; Captain Peter Hammarstedt from Sea Shepherd; Investigative researcher Daniel Murphy; Shannon Service, Director of Ghost Fleet; Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Waves; Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia; Gambian reporter Mustapha Manneh; Chemistry Professor Ahmed Manjang; Richard Udell from the U.S. Department of Justice; Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace U.S.; and Bren Smith, founder of Green Wave.

And finally, a special thank you to the following organizations for providing assets for the podcasts and for supporting this journalism: Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, Global Fishing Watch, Women on Waves, Trygg Mat Tracking, Environmental Justice Foundation, and quite especially, National Geographic Society.