The ocean is unconquered by the rule of law—a place where magic and superstition hold as much sway as science and technology. It tests human nature’s basest form, as only the barest traces of the order we follow on land govern international waters. It boasts some framework, in theory, some allegiance to best practices and human rights. But as Ian Urbina makes clear, the outlaw ocean dissolves such delusions in its endless depths.
Urbina spent years at sea, chronicling the lives of those upon it for The New York Times. The stories contained in his new book, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier, pertain to ecology, climate change and the economy—the great engines now running the world. Urbina’s true focus, however, is on the people driven by those engines.
There are few heroes in Urbina’s anomic world. Coast guards and navies may try to impose their will, but the amorphous nature of the sea—and our abandonment of even attempted control past a certain distance from land—ensures that international waters are a world unto themselves. Out there exists a maritime Mad Max, as ships barely seaworthy travel thousands of miles from their home ports…and from civilization itself.
In vile conditions—Urbina reports roaches crawling across all surfaces and maggots flecked throughout food stores—sail sea slaves and indentured servants, dominated by tyrannical crews who whip, cane, flay and kill. They poach the high seas, snatching fish we laughably corral by invisible boundaries in waters we have arbitrarily divided—a massive echo of colonial line-making.
On boats barely considered more reputable, idealistic people attempt to bring vigilante justice. Some dare to intercept Japanese whalers or to chase Interpol’s most wanted across thousands of miles of ocean. Anchored offshore in an enormous armory, private security guards await the call to protect against pirates. Yet state-owned vessels still flex firearms against phantom jurisdictions, and political tensions flare as the law is flailing.
How can you bring order to a place where winds exceed 100 miles per hour and waves reach over a hundred of feet high? The ocean drags both the weak and the brave into a frigid forever—its depths plied by monsters mythological, biological and man-made. In both shape and spirit, the international waters which dominate the globe are not an aberration but the norm.
What we learn from Urbina’s journeys is nothing less than the deepest aspects of humanity itself. Dropped into a world without terra firma’s systems and foibles, our darkest impulses emerge. But our most noble intentions—to save, to protect, to establish fair rule of law—appear as well. Neither has any chance against the power of the outlaw ocean, however, as society continues to ignore the majority of the globe’s surface. In the end, all the ink, blood, sweat and tears are mere drops in the highest seas.
B. David Zarley is a senior staff writer for Freethink and essayist, book and art critic. His writing has been features in The Atlantic, The Verge, Jezebel, VICE Sports, Frieze, Hazlitt and numerous other publications. He lives in Chicago.