Studying anthropology prepared Ian Urbina, AM’97, for a headline career in investigative journalism.
Ian Urbina’s best-laid plans were adrift. Just a few days earlier, the 43-year-old New York Times reporter had struck a deal with a boat captain in a West African port to take him and a fixer to a high-seas rendezvous with a ship called the Sam Simon.
Manned by the eco-vigilante group the Sea Shepherds, it and another ship, the Bob Barker, were in pursuit of an even bigger fish than usual—the Thunder, one of the world’s most notorious poaching ships, which the group had tailed for months across two seas and three oceans. Urbina, AM’97, wanted to be there when the Sea Shepherds caught up. But the water was too deep for the 40-foot boat he’d chartered to drop anchor. It was running low on fuel. The backup generator was busted. And now they’d lost power, miles from shore. Urbina had juice for one last call on his satellite phone, and the captain was asking him to make it.
“It was sort of like a lifeline on a game show—who will I call?” Urbina remembers. With a few lucky breaks, he did make it aboard the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker, and the chase of the Thunder became the fourth installment of Urbina’s Times series the Outlaw Ocean, a two-year investigation into the unregulated, unpoliced, dystopian economy of international waters.
Much of that reporting was done in the field: in port towns, aboard floating arsenals, and on rat-infested fishing vessels using forced labor. The series has made waves. Secretary of state John Kerry, who announced new plans in October to crack down on companies that fish illegally and engage in human trafficking, has cited Urbina’s reporting as an influence.
Since he joined the Times in 2003 while a history graduate student at UChicago, Urbina has specialized in the kinds of investigative dives that capture public attention. He was part of the team of Times reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for a series of stories that uncovered then-governor Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal, for which the rising Democratic star ultimately resigned.
Hollywood has noticed too: a mammoth 2011–12 investigative series on the fracking boom provided part of the inspiration for the 2012 Matt Damon flick Promised Land, and a profile of an American guerilla in South Sudan for Vanity Fair presaged Gerard Butler’s 2011 movie Machine Gun Preacher. Urbina has also exposed the US government’s use of international garment factories with horrific, illegal working conditions, and a broken incentive system that left doctors treating diabetes rather than preventing it.
Urbina was drawn to the oceans long before he sold his editor on the Outlaw Ocean; in a roundabout way, it started on the South Side. After college at Georgetown, he arrived on campus to pursue a PhD in history with a strong interest in anthropology. But he soon burned out. “Winter, Chicago, Hyde Park—and I wanted a break,” he says. A friend tipped him off to a venture, funded by the Biosphere Foundation, that was recruiting researchers for a project studying the health of the world’s coral reefs.
Urbina spent most of his time on the docks, not the deck, but what the anthropologist in him saw was arresting. He’d always romanticized the sea—“if someone offered me a ticket to the moon or to the furthest spot in the ocean,” Urbina says, pointing to a world map on the wall of his Washington, DC, home office, “I’d take the latter in a second, and that was always the case.” Then his experience in Singapore for the Biosphere Foundation sparked a fascination “with seafarers, ... a transient diaspora tribe around the world,” he says. “I was way too far in, but I thought, ‘Wow, this would be a great anthropology topic.’”
Instead, Urbina jumped ship.
He’d been writing freelance magazine stories since returning from Havana, where he researched his dissertation on literacy and the press in colonial Cuba. With the project still unfinished, he “ran away from one form of field work into another.”
His first full-time job in journalism was with the Times. Urbina’s reporting on maritime lawlessness blends exhaustive analysis of public records, like ship registries and tax filings, and on-the-scene interviews with the sailors, slaves, and contractors who spend their lives at sea. His biggest safety concern was not fellow seafarers but the setting—roaches and rats, hostile dogs, and rolling swells during pitch-black nights.
On the South China Sea he spent a sleepless 30-plus hours aboard a fishing boat filled with indentured servants who worked 18- to 20-hour days, seven days a week, to pay off the human traffickers or ship captains who hold their elusive debt. In the Gulf of Oman, he explored a floating armory, manned by British and American private security teams that offered protection—at a price—to merchant vessels. And in perhaps the most harrowing piece in the series, he probed a seven-minute video, found on a cellphone in the back of a taxi in Fiji, that depicted the murder of four men somewhere on the Indian Ocean.
Urbina hasn’t settled on his next big project yet. He still has more Outlaw Ocean stories he wants to unpack, some from a reporting trip he took this past fall to the remote archipelago of Palau. One project he won’t be taking on any time soon: what’s left of his dissertation. But Urbina considers his time studying anthropology well spent. “Field work kind of taught me to have the almost opposite instinct that maybe a tourist does or other types of visitors do,” he says.
“Don’t rush to see things exactly as locals do. Focus on looking for things that are distinct and curious and pause over them; ask questions about them; explore them; and also view everyone as others, and kind of think about difference.”
On the high seas, the enormity itself was a story, as much as any squall. “You go to places that you feel are super well traveled, metaphorically speaking, and there’s always things that are new.”
Updated 03.08.2016: Article corrected to state that Urbina was solely enrolled in the Department of History rather than a dual program in the Departments of History and Anthropology. However, much of his studies concentrated on anthropology. In addition, his start date at the New York Times was corrected to 2003.