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Open this photo in gallery:Ian Urbina Reporting,  film Stills from the  Outlaw Ocean Project, series

Ian Urbina in a submarine in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil.Handout

Deep, dark, and full of secrets, the ocean can be an enterprising journalist’s best friend – or worst enemy.

In his new documentary series, Dispatches from the Outlaw Ocean, former New York Times reporter Ian Urbina dives deep into the world of pirates, poachers, slavers and so much more. With the 10-part series now being rolled out via media partners such as The Globe and Mail, Urbina – director of the non-profit journalism organization the Outlaw Ocean Project, which produced the new project – spoke with The Globe and Mail about searching the sea for stories.

Why bring this project to the documentary format, and how can episodic storytelling help spotlight the issues you’ve investigated?

One of our goals was to cover this reporting in a distinct way, and given that water covers two-thirds of the planet, that means it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of reporting. The larger point of this reporting is to confront the global public with the reality that there’s a lot more happening out there than people realize. If you say to someone, “I’m reporting on maritime crime,” they’ll say, “Oh, so Somali piracy.” That’s Hollywood-driven, and it’s not wrong. But our point here is to stretch the taxonomy of what’s happening out there. Slavery, illegal whaling, arms trafficking, so many other things. Doing a doc series allows us to make 10 points across 10 episodes, to show the diversity.

Open this photo in gallery:Ian Urbina Reporting,  film Stills from the  Outlaw Ocean Project, series

Indonesians chase a Vietnamese blue boat illegally fishing.Fabio Nascimento/Handout

Why the decision to make the episodes short, easily digestible 10-minute slices rather than stitch them together to form a two-hour film or a longer series?

The series draws on nine years of reporting, so it could’ve been feature-length, but if you make it smaller one-point episodes then people can swallow it more easily. It does make it an odd fit in today’s landscape because streamers don’t want 10-minute episodes. But I think the journalism world is heading into these kinds of shorter productions, which younger viewers are more likely to watch. And we didn’t want to lock the material down with one partner – we wanted to bring it free to the marketplace, to publishers like The Globe. They can host it, expose it to their readerships, but they don’t own it.

With so much ground to cover, so to speak, how did you decide which issues to focus on in each episode?

The high seas has this umbrella concept, but to explore it anthropologically, it means selecting different issues to make it feel diverse. It can’t just be five episodes out of 10 on human-rights abuses.

Open this photo in gallery:Ian Urbina Reporting,  film Stills from the  Outlaw Ocean Project, series

Mr. Urbina sits on the floor of a small blue boat in Somalia.Fabio Nascimento/Handout

Was there one issue that was particularly challenging to translate to the documentary format?

Sea slavery is a difficult one to tackle. There are these vessels out on the water for two to three years at a time, really far offshore, whether they’re Taiwanese, Chinese, South Korean. They dump their hauls on refrigeration vessels that come by, and they stay on the distant water. Even if you can get out to them, and even if you can get onboard them, they’re not going to show you the real conditions. It’s a circus.

When did you first become fascinated with the ocean? Was there a moment growing up that you can trace this all to?

I went to grad school for anthropology and history, and I was getting burned out. I didn’t want to be an academic. I then met this young woman who had just spent two years at sea, and it sounded like space travel on Earth. It was so rich and exotic. So I applied to the program she had been on, and jumped on a plane to Singapore and got on a ship there. But we never left port for two months or so, and I had all this time to kill. So I talked with this transient tribe of seafarers, and heard all these wild stories from a mix of characters. I went back to reality after that and took a job at a newspaper, but 20 years later I never lost the bug. So when I finally got the political capital at The New York Times for an editor to take a chance on me with a crazy big idea, I thought I could take the reading public out onto the high seas.

Open this photo in gallery:Ian Urbina Reporting,  film Stills from the  Outlaw Ocean Project, series

Men unload fish from boats in Kantang.Fabio Nascimento/Handout

For more information on the Outlaw Ocean project and to watch episodes in the new docuseries, visit

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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