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The Outlaw Ocean Crime & Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier

By: Ian Urbina(Author)
560 pages, 16 plates with colour photos
Publisher: Vintage
The Outlaw Ocean takes an unflinching look at the criminal excesses playing out on the high seas. Riveting, exceptional, deeply troubling – this brutal reportage left a lasting impression.
The Outlaw Ocean
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  • The Outlaw Ocean ISBN: 9781529111392 Paperback Jul 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Outlaw Ocean ISBN: 9781847925855 Hardback Sep 2019 Out of Print #247650
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

The Outlaw Ocean is a riveting, adrenaline-fuelled 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 the unbridled extremes of human behaviour and activity.

Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortionists, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways: drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world and their risk-fraught lives. 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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Riveting, exceptional, deeply troubling
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Nov 2019 Written for Hardback

    I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.

    I was wrong.

    New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.

    On land, it is relatively hard to escape law and order. Not so on the high seas. Outside of territorial seas and exclusive economic zones, a vast swathe of the globe is liquid no man’s land: the high seas, waters that fall outside of anyone’s jurisdiction and that are effectively a marine wild west. The lack of oversight and law enforcement, plus the sheer size and impossibility of patrolling the oceans, allow a rainbow of crimes to flourish.

    Urbina opens and closes the book accompanying vigilante conservationist group Sea Shepherd. Not shying away from direct action at sea to frustrate ships that are fishing in off-limit zones or whaling, this organisation regularly makes headlines. They have a “flexible” approach to the law, quipping that “it takes a pirate to catch a pirate”. It seems they have realised they need allies, so nowadays they are cooperating with Interpol. An anonymous source there mentions to Urbina that “they’re getting results”, leading Interpol to turn a blind eye to Sea Shepherd’s transgressions. I find it hard not to come away feeling supportive of their efforts. Urbina joins them for part of their pursuit of the highly wanted fishing vessel Thunder (see also Catching Thunder), and later during an anti-whaling campaign (see also Hunting the Hunters).

    I came away with a similar positive feeling from the chapter that reports on the renegade Dutch doctor-activist Rebecca Gomperts. Her initiative Women on Waves offers abortions to women worldwide by sailing them into international waters and offering them abortion pills. These people are breaking and bending rules, yes, but the means justify the ends. However, when anti-whaling and pro-abortion efforts are the most cheerful topics you can muster, you know you are in for grim reading.

    A large part of Urbina’s reporting deals with the fishing industry. In other reviews, I have already dealt with the history of overfishing (see All the Boats on the Ocean) and its consequences (see The End of the Line and my review of Vanishing Fish). Urbina documents the destruction wrought by trawling, by-catch and other questionable practices such as the reduction industry (see also The Omega Principle), but also the side often ignored by environmentalists: the human cost.

    Many of these ships use intermediate manning agencies to press-gang poor men into barbaric working conditions. Urbina investigates in Palau, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Somalia, to name but some of the hotspots. What he uncovers is nothing short of slavery: 20-hour workdays, 7-day work weeks, withheld salaries, frequent beatings, intimidation, rape, even murder (see also The Catch and The Fish Market). No, slavery was not abolished, it just moved offshore.

    Urbina alternates his reporting on these human rights abuses with other, “lighter” topics, some rather bizarre. Take the self-proclaimed micro-nation Sealand off the British coast. Or repo man (short for repossession) Max Hardberger who, by cunning rather than force, steals stolen vessels and returns them to their owners (see also his book Seized!). Others are deeply troubling: the dumping of waste by luxury cruise ships, the fate of stowaways, oil companies covering up the existence of fragile coral reefs in areas targeted for oil drilling, the limbo of crew members stranded on bankrupt vessels.

    Although it makes for a bit of a wandering narrative, I think it is a good move. I admit not necessarily having a high opinion of the human species, but there is only so much despair, violence, and misery that I can endure. The sheer visceral intensity of Urbina’s reporting was such that it brought me close to tears on several occasions, which happens rarely. Whether the high seas bring out the worst in man, or whether they attract the worst kind of man, The Outlaw Ocean offers an unflinching look at some of the most depraved excesses of human cruelty.

    Part of what allows this inhumane treatment to continue are the many byzantine maritime laws, which, Urbina observes, protect a ship’s cargo more than its crew. Especially the practice of flags of convenience, whereby a company in country A can register their ship in country B, has encouraged companies to shop around for countries with minimal regulation and oversight. Add manning agencies in country C recruiting people from country D, and fishing companies are answerable to no one. As a spokesperson of a migrant advocacy group in Singapore observes: “That’s exactly how this business is designed“.

    Sure, corrupt port authorities and inspectors are being bribed to look the other way, but we would do well to remember that we are all in on this, as Urbina points out in one of his most incisive paragraphs. As long as we continue to feel entitled to the lowest prices, we are turning a blind eye to labour abuses. “Such is the inconvenient truth of globalization [...] more a market sleight of hand than [...] Adam Smith’s invisible hand“. I was hoping Urbina would return to this in his appendix where he recommends what readers can do and what organisations they can support, but was disappointed to see he refrains from further reflective condemnation.

    The reporting in this book is top-notch, and I was not surprised to read that the original article series received seven major awards. Clearly, Urbina can call on deep pockets and influential contacts around the globe, not to mention an unhealthy dose of persistence and courage, to get him into locations and near people you would normally actively avoid. More than once, he puts his life on the line and finds himself in rapidly escalating situations. However, I never got the feeling that he is driven by bravado, more by an unquenchable urge to uncover injustice. His concern is more with witnesses, fixers, translators, or photographers close to him than with his own safety. Even so, some of the encounters described here made my pulse race.

    The Outlaw Ocean is an exceptional reportage that encompasses almost every conceivable form of misconduct playing out on the high seas. I found the book impossible to put down. Shocking, urgent, and gut-wrenching in places, it left a deep and lasting impression on me.
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Ian Urbina spent five years, more than three of them at sea, uncovering the stories in The Outlaw Ocean, which began life as a series of articles for The New York Times that won seven major awards. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times where his investigations have covered oil and mining disasters, sex trafficking, high-school shooting, criminal justice, worker safety and the environment. Several have been made into films, and he has been nominated for an Emmy. Urbina has degrees in history from Georgetown and the University of Chicago, and lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

By: Ian Urbina(Author)
560 pages, 16 plates with colour photos
Publisher: Vintage
The Outlaw Ocean takes an unflinching look at the criminal excesses playing out on the high seas. Riveting, exceptional, deeply troubling – this brutal reportage left a lasting impression.
Media reviews

"Gripping and shocking by turns [...] Most of the book clips along with the pace of a thriller [...] stomach-churningly tense [...] as outlandish and as thrilling as a heist film"
The Times

"A riveting, terrifying, thrilling story of a netherworld that few people know about, and fewer will ever see. As Ian Urbina ventures into the darkest folds of the high seas, his courage – and his prose – are breathtaking"
– Susan Casey, author of The Wave

"This is just incredible investigative work"
– Naomi Klein

"Urbina has written an astonishing book about a world most of us don't even know exists. These are dispatches from the lawless ocean – of traffickers, slaves, heroes, gangsters, crooks and scoundrels – which will amaze, enthral and appal you"
– Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland

"An outstanding investigation of a global criminal culture on the high seas [...] His rendezvous with contacts on at least one occasion was arranged for 100 miles offshore through mountainous waves [...] Little wonder the stories he tells have not been told before"

"Not just a stunning read, this book is a gripping chronicle of the watery wild west and it shows us – frankly unlike anything I've read before – how the vast ocean has become a danger zone, and ultimately how we all pay a price for this mayhem and mistreatment"
– John Kerry, former Secretary of State and founder of the Our Ocean Conference

"Imagine a fantasy movie in which an explorer from Earth arrives on the surface of a living planet, to discover a lawless place where brutality is the only order and greed and fear the only motivators. Welcome to The Outlaw Ocean. In this utterly groundbreaking, constantly astonishing often disturbing book, Ian Urbina has put his life on the line to lay bare the stunning inhumanity that reigns unchecked over two-thirds of Earth's surface"
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words and Song for the Blue Ocean

"Incredible, readable, riveting"
– Sam Walker, Wall Street Journal

"It's this kind of hard-assed reporting that can ultimately change the world for the better"
– Chris Dixon, Scuttlefish

"You simply have to read this"
– Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

– Oliver Franklin-Walles, Wired

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