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Book Review — The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

This book originally hit the New York Times best seller list in 2019 and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I found it. My finding this book was akin to trying to find a needle in a hay stack or as you’ll learn in the book, like trying to find a whaling boat in the Antarctic.

Ian Urbina became deeply embedded in each subject to write The Outlaw Ocean. Urbina reminded me of Sabastian Junger who also, at the expense of real danger, deeply rooted himself to share a true perspective in his storytelling. In one story Urbina was deep into a hostile area. Urbina shared how important it is to size someone up quickly and to assign a degree of trust:

It is what the New York Times Delhi bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, once described as the “transitive property of trust.” Reporters invest their lives in it all the time, he said. People you trust put you with people they trust who pass you to others they trust. The longer it gets, the more you hope the chain will hold. — Page 238

Trust is a two way street and Urbina had to create trust with his subjects even when cultural divides were as vast as the ocean. Urbina provided insight into how he created rapport and the different techniques he employed to build trust:

At home, I’m a vegetarian. When I travel, I eat what’s put in front of me. To say no to an offer of food would have been as socially appropriate as spitting indoors. “Sea bug soup” raw squid on rice, the aggressively pungent durian — some of what was served took fast chewing, closed eyes, and ample chasers. — Page 240

Urbina’s style was part bringing the reader on an adventure and part managing the adventure from the lens of a journalist. When a journalist embarks on an adventure to write a story (Ubrina’s work has been in the NY Times) it is paramount the story is written ethically, morally, and with integrity. Ubrina allowed the reader a peak behind the mindset and guardrails required to be able to report based on fact but also with a respect to the passion of other’s perspective.

For more than a year, I had been reporting on the seamiest, most dangerous aspects of the fishing industry, chronicling the illegal machinations of an industry that operated in the dark, where slavery and sadism thrived, where people were treated like the commodities that they pulled from the oceans. — Page 14

At times it seemed Urbina was walking a fine line — report on an unethical practice but not support it. Urbina took you behind the scenes and shared his emotionally was a careful balance between implicit bystander and witness to the illicit.

Reading the book I often found myself on the proverbial edge of my seat wondering if Urbina’s chain of trust had too many links and if the links had too many weak points. It was incredible how much trust was required to write each story well. On several occasions Urbina had to hop on a boat to get to another boat, or locale, for an undetermined period with the hope that another boat would show up to get him back to shore at some point. I found the uncertainty and adventure exhilarating.


In several sections of the book Urbina chronicled his experience embed with the Sea Shepherd. The Sea Shepherd’s mission statement is “… to end the destruction of habitats and illegal killing of wildlife around the UK’s coastline and across the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect marine ecosystems and species.” This group polices illegal fishing and destructive acts in the ocean. Their practice is often criticized as illegal, dangerous, and/or violent. Ubrina humanized the group as more than a bunch of hippies or sea turtle loving activists:

Complain less, focus better, actually listen, be more present. “It’s a daily reminder to be thankful that I have this job,” one deckhand told me when I asked why he always signed up for bathroom-cleaning duty. “If I’m going to have these politics, I need to think through the unintended consequences,” another told me when I asked her why she was reading what looked like a deeply boring book about global food policy. — Page 40

That viewpoint a bit refreshing and a great reminder that we all probably need to evaluate our deeply held beliefs, convictions, or principles and “think through the unintended consequences”. We too often forget — what does it truly look like to love thy neighbor.

Finally I’ll leave you with a few sentences from Urbina’s last chapter that resonated.

It was time for me to stay onshore and return to my job at the newspaper. Leaving a dozen amazing stories unreported, I swallowed that painful writer’s truism that a book is never finished, just abandoned. — Page 406

I look forward to a future post on Medium about the excerpt below:

As I read up on the topic: I came across the story of a Belgian research ship called the Belgica, which offered an instructive and early lesson about the mental strains of being stranded at sea. In 1898, thé Wooden, 118-foot ship became stuck in a pack of Antarctic ice in the Bellingshausen Sea. On board were nineteen men: nine sailors, two engineers, and an international team of eight officers and scientists, including a geologist, meteorologist, and anthropologist. As the sun disappeared for two months, the group hunkered down for a brutal winter. With no hope of being rescued, their true enemy was not the cold but madness. Within weeks, a crewman became paranoid and hid at night. Another announced plans to walk home to Belgium. The Belgica broke free from the ice and made it back to the port of Antwerp nearly a year later. The remaining crew members were haggard and thin, but their faculties were largely intact because the captain had imposed a rigorous regimen meant to maintain their mental health. — Page 150

Book Rating: 8.5/10

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Will Bryan

Will Bryan

Supply Chain professional living in Charlotte, NC. I have a passion for the marriage of technology, process, and logistics to promote positive outcomes.