The Outlaw Ocean offers up in-depth looks at people, places and events that few of us will ever encounter, let alone read about anywhere else.
The sheer vastness of Earth’s oceans strains comprehension. Covering some 71% of the planet’s surface, they span the whole of the globe, touching every continent and affecting our daily lives in myriad ways. Because of their size and the distances one must cover to trek from country to country via the ocean, there’s a certain mythic lawlessness that pervades the idea of the open sea. For good reason, a fair amount of humor is built around the idea of the “anything goes” attitude of so-called international waters as these areas are largely beholden to no nation and thus offer an appealing destination for those looking to operate without the potential repercussions of running afoul national or international law.
It’s in these last largely unregulated wildernesses that writer Ian Urbina directs readers in his alternately fascinating and wildly depressing examination of the world’s oceans, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier. From illegal fishing operations (“Storming the Thunder”) that change their ship’s nationality like most of us change clothes to horrific instances of human trafficking (“The Scofflaw Fleet”) to exercises in independent rule in the face of centuries of colonial rule (“A Rusty Kingdom”), Urbina’s explorations cover a range of little-known—or at least rarely discussed—topics that show just how lawless the open ocean can be. Much of it is due to the bureaucratic nightmare that is maritime law and the vagaries and loopholes contained therein.
Particularly in Third World countries where they often lack the necessary jurisdictional infrastructure to be able to process the worst offenders (see “The Lone Patrol” for one of the most maddeningly frustrating instances of this), some of the greatest oceanic atrocities run rampant. Urbina examines a number of deep-sea fishing vessels that operate largely without any sort of regulations either with regard to their catches or treatment of its crew. As illustrated in “The Scofflaw Fleet,” many of the ship’s crewmembers are brutalized, paid virtually nothing and, for all intents and purposes, buying their way into their own modern form of slavery at the hands of the ship’s captains. Sourcing their crews primarily from the poorest locales in Southeast Asia, these ships traffic not only in human rights violations but also have helped deplete the world’s fisheries through gross overfishing and rampant negligence.
Opening piece “Storming the Thunder” offers a thrilling high seas cat-and-mouse game in which one of the most egregious offenders of unregulated and illegal fishing, the Thunder, is pursued by Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker. The latter is one of a handful of ships used by the international agency whose sole mission is to pick up the slack of patrolling international waters in hopes of ensuring the worst of the worst are, if not put out of commission, at least kept in check. In Urbina’s narrative, the two ships track each other for months in a sort of nautical version of a lyrical Western in which the gallant vigilantes stalk their prey across an inhospitable desert, neither party wishing to give in to the next.
It’s a fascinating story that, wisely, leads off The Outlaw Ocean and perfectly sets the tone for the lawlessness that is to follow, but would’ve also make for an equally compelling full-length investigation into the whole ordeal. Instead, it offers little more than a sampler of a much larger story dealing with Sea Shepherd, its often-questionable practices and its ability to skirt the oceans’ lack of jurisdictional authority to its benefit in tracking down ships like the Thunder.
In “Adelaide’s Voyage,” Urbina recounts the humanitarian efforts of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, whose Women on Waves literally travels the globe by boat, offering abortions for individuals living in countries wherein the practice remains illegal. By shepherding her patients into international waters, Gomperts is able to legally perform the procedure—via pills rather than the less-than-ideal surgery-at-sea practice some might imagine—and offer it to women who might otherwise lack any safer abortion options. It’s a rare instance of someone utilizing the vagaries of international waters and the lack of laws contained therein to do some semblance of good.
Fortunately, The Outlaw Ocean isn’t all doom-and-gloom (though it does require frequent breaks on the part of the reader after some of the more harrowing atrocities and behaviors committed by those on the open ocean), as “A Rusty Kingdom” somewhat gleefully captures in the absurdist tale of Sealand. Located some seven miles off the coast of England in the North Sea, Sealand is little more than an abandoned anti-aircraft platform declared and conquered by one Paddy Roy Bates, a retired British army major, on Christmas Eve 1966. Ever since, Bates’ family have been the overlords of the rusty kingdom resting on two massive pedestals high above the North Sea, alternately operating as a pirate radio station, exercise in British jurisdiction, site of a failed coup and many other instances that feel more like plot points in cast-off Monty Pythonesque sketches than our modern world.
On the whole, The Outlaw Ocean offers up, through Urbina’s often first-person accounts, in-depth looks at people, places and events that few of us will ever encounter, let alone read about anywhere else. These are the lost, forgotten or just plain abandoned stories that get swallowed up by the ocean’s vastness and an international body politic that simply refuses to devote the necessary resources to help serve and protect our most important national resource. Never preachy but always cautionary, Urbina’s reports from The Outlaw Ocean should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with where we’re headed from an environmental standpoint, as well as international matters such as human trafficking, human rights violations and immigration.