Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project, 2017.

Beyond Imagination: Truth telling on behalf of the ocean with Ian Urbina

Uncovering the hidden and defining the undefined – how journalist Ian Urbina is changing the world one story at a time.


Ian Urbina is an American investigative reporter and Founder of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a renowned, nonprofit journalism organization that highlights untold stories from the ocean – an underworld rarely seen, much less so investigated.

While the ocean provides crucial livelihoods for many and plays a vital role in global trade, maritime activities are a hotbed of environmental challenges and human rights violations, including exploitation, abuse, forced labor, and human trafficking. Shining a light on these issues requires a team with experience, tenacity, and resilience – qualities that Ian Urbina and his team at The Outlaw Ocean Project have demonstrated time and time again.

His three-decade career covers a 17-year stint at The New York Times – which is where The Outlaw Ocean article series began – and regular features in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NBC News, and The Washington Post, among others. He has collected numerous accolades along the way, winning a Pulitzer Prize, two Polk Awards, and an Emmy Award for his contributions to international journalism. In 2019, Ian published the New York Times best-selling book The Outlaw Ocean, and shortly afterward, Netflix and Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the movie and TV rights.

Ian and his team’s most recent powerful investigation China: The Superpower of Seafood, made waves around the world and was covered by 143 media outlets in 39 countries.


The Zhe Pu Yuan 98 is a squid ship that doubles as a floating hospital. © Ben Blankenship/The Outlaw Ocean Project


11th Hour Racing is one of many supporters of The Outlaw Ocean Project after their innovative journalism caught the attention of the team behind the organization’s Grant Program.

“The storytelling is intense,” explains 11th Hour Racing’s President Michelle Carnevale. “There’s no other way to describe what Ian and his team do. Their dedication and commitment to unveiling human rights violations and environmental violations is unwavering. Furthermore, the stories that they uncover are beyond most people’s imagination. By placing a focus on human rights at sea, we safeguard the dignity and well-being of those traversing the oceans while also fostering the development of a maritime environment that is fair, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable, benefiting both present and future generations.

“Their dedication and commitment to unveiling human rights violations and environmental violations is unwavering.”

We sat down with Ian to uncover how influential world-class storytelling can be in the fight for a safer, healthier, and, ultimately, more governed ocean.


Welcome to the gray zone


‘Reporting from the world’s last untamed frontier’ are the words that appear in bold on the homepage of The Outlaw Ocean Project’s website, painting the picture of the organization’s mission of journalistic exploration around lawlessness on the high seas, both above and below the waterline. 

Also known as the gray zone.

“One of the biggest misconceptions around the ocean and its purpose is that it’s just this big blue space for marine habitats,” explains Ian in his exclusive interview with 11th Hour Racing. “What people don’t understand is that the ocean is a mine for precious metals, it’s a factory floor, it’s a dumping ground, it’s a trading border town… all this to say, there’s a lot more that happens out there than just fishing.” 

Ian’s team has historically reported on a wide range of topics covering the diversity of offshore crimes, such as the killing of stowaways, sea slavery, illegal dumping, illegal fishing, the stealing of ships, arms trafficking, stranding of crews, and murder with impunity.   

“Sure, marine mammal life needs to be protected, but there are human lives out there too,” he says. “All the crimes we witness and report on stem from one core problem, and that’s lack of governance at sea. 

“Our team taps into the lack of awareness among the landlubbers of what happens out there. The key is getting people to care, and that’s where storytelling comes in.”

Investigating every side of the story is critical to Ian’s journalism. ©Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project.


Stretching the public’s imagination


Ian’s work requires extensive travel. ©Hannah Reyes Morales/The Outlaw Ocean Project.

When Ian first began exploring the extreme lawlessness happening on our ocean, he spent weeks compiling a comprehensive 300-page document containing feature-length ocean-related topics from the last decade. What he noticed was a focus on prevalent themes like Somali piracy, oil spills, plastic pollution, and depleting fish populations.

“I realized there were overlooked issues like abortion, whaling, slavery, arms trafficking, and intentional dumping,” he explains. “These neglected subjects made me realize the need to take the public’s imagination of this space and stretch it out.

“Instead of just addressing overfishing, we should broaden our perspective by helping people realize what a hub of activity the ocean is. We need to be thinking about the bigger picture to include governance.”

In 2022, Ian and his team won an Emmy Award for the documentary “Get away from the target” – Rescuing migrants from the Libyan Coast Guard. Like many of the team’s reports, this too gained international acclaim – so how does The Outlaw Ocean Project choose what to focus on and which stories to tell?


Diving deep into slow storytelling


“Evergreen storytelling is our DNA, so we choose topics we can be sure people will care about in the future,” Ian reveals. 

“For example, at this point in time, we’re looking at fish feed. Not fish food, as in the fish we eat, but the details and politics around what gets fed to the farmed fish, which becomes the food we eat. It might take a few years, but I guarantee you when that story comes out, it will be extremely relevant.”

Not only do Ian and his team work on their investigations over the span of several years, but they also meticulously document their progress in a transparent manner. Once an investigation is published, the team shares key locations, a subsidiary of articles to support the investigation, their findings, methodology, and perhaps most crucially (and most unusually) subsequent solutions from experts on the topic of the relevant investigation.

Ian and his team have reported on a wide range of topics. ©Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project.

Ian’s investigations can take years. ©Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project


“I knew slow journalism was the direction we had to go in,” he says. “So one thing I said to my team when we first started out independently was, ‘Listen, we’re not going to bang this out in three weeks or three months.’”

“Because our investigations can take time, it’s crucial the outcome is unlike anyone has come across before, and it stands the test of time. Sure, you will have heard of the topic, but we aim to go above and beyond, leaving people with the feeling of ‘wow, that’s the best thing I ever saw/read/heard about that topic.’”


An umpire in the court of public opinion


One of the more commonly known key aims for journalists is to maintain objectivity, a quality Ian knows only too well, being the son of a federal judge for the United States District Court. His father once told him that while his profession entailed being an “umpire in the court of law,” Ian’s career path would require him to be “an umpire in the court of public opinion, duty bound to be straight and rigorously fair.”

But how can one remain unaffected by bias, especially after witnessing so many atrocities and injustices?


“I am duty-bound to question everything. I must have both sides of the story.


Evergreen storytelling is in Ian Urbina’s DNA. © Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project.


“I would be lying if I said I didn’t have strong opinions on matters,” Ian says. “I have biases, and I let them breathe. I don’t believe in denying them. However, I only let them dictate a certain part of the decision-making train. For example, they will dictate which stories I choose, but once I’m in those spaces, I am duty-bound to question everything. I must have both sides of the story.”

It’s Ian’s ability to successfully search for and present the ‘why’ that’s been extremely valued in his storytelling. However gruesome the subject matter. 

“A perfect example of this was when I was with a bunch of Thai captains who were beating their deckhands atrociously,” he recalls. 

“It’s easy to assume they’re bad people, but after spending weeks with them, they opened up to me that they were terrified of the alternative – if they didn’t do it, the ratio of deckhands to captains was 5:1, and the possibility of a revolt was extremely high. Ultimately, these men were scared. It doesn’t make what they did any less horrendous, but it does allow me to present the ‘why,’ and that’s important.”


A small collection of people who really ‘get’ the world


The Outlaw Ocean Project also runs The Outlaw Ocean Institute, which is where the relationship with 11th Hour Racing comes into play. “I view 11th Hour Racing as a dedicated group of individuals who get the world. They are committed to investing in real change. They’ve supported me personally – financially and emotionally – as well as everything in between. When I present unconventional ideas, as long as I can make a compelling case, they’re open to supporting initiatives like starting an institute, which is what we’re working on together now.”

The Outlaw Ocean Institute has three alumni, with three more on the horizon for 2024. “Our vision is to each year select several young journalists to train and support from all over the world and, most importantly, from the countries we report from,” Ian explains.


Ian has been described as an ‘umpire in the court of public opinion’. ©Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project.

I view 11th Hour Racing as a dedicated group of individuals who get the world.”


As they work towards their vision of supporting and training young journalists worldwide, Ian Urbina and the team at The Outlaw Ocean Project remind us that, amidst the vast complexities of investigative journalism, meaningful change often begins with a few dedicated individuals.

Header image credit: Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Photo gallery credit: Fábio Nascimento & Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project & Youenn Kerdavid/Sea Shepherd Global