World Ocean Weekly

It's a Great Time to Be a Citizen Scientist

The phenomenon of citizen science has two excellent outcomes: first, it provides information that cannot be collected by the traditional methods of field research, transcending the challenges of time and cost; and, second, it enlists non-scientists — students at many levels and curious individuals — in the exploration of a challenging question, its solution, and the expansion of public awareness and action from the project derived. Add to this innovation easy access via the Internet and social media to reach other similar citizens worldwide and you have a powerful tool for study and education.

This value is especially true for ocean science wherein the need for observation and data collection is distributed across a vast horizon of geographical, physical, and biological inquiry, none of which is easily or cheaply accessible. The costs to build, maintain, and operate research vessels are enormous and are mostly provided through government funding and some dedicated private philanthropy. New remote, technologically advanced observation systems are proliferating ocean wide; similar vehicles and technologies for access to the water column and sea floor are also in place. These amplify the collection of data for the most focused experiments, but are exclusive to very precise experiments and data collection and are not available to a large majority of scientists eager to investigate an almost infinite number of questions — a stunning measure of our ignorance about the ocean — how it is, how it works, and what is at risk due to change in critical environmental conditions.

Let me offer some examples:

Let’s say you love penguins, and want to study their behavior and count population numbers over a period of year in places you can never visit. To do so otherwise would be prohibitively time-consuming, physically demanding, and very expensive. Enter Penguin Watch, established by Oxford University in England, which enlists over 4,000 volunteers to monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean, taken by remote cameras to record size and structure of populations from year to year, and to observe molting cycles, predation, and novel behaviors otherwise unobserved. It’s penguins 24/7.

Whale lover? Go to Happy Whale, created by the Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, Washington, and Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, where you can track whales all over the world by their unique tail markings as documented by algorithm analysis of photographs taken in the most remote whale breeding habitats, migration paths, and feeding grounds. You can locate and follow, even name a particular whale from place to place, year after year. You can learn, and share, everything you want to know about whales.

Head in the clouds? Go to the International Cloud Atlas, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a global reference system for observing and identifying clouds including classifications, historical information, measurements, changing characteristics and other related meteorological phenomena such as halos, snow devils and rainbows, and now publicly accessible in digital format, presenting thousands of examples of cloud formations in ten accepted categories. You can also join the Cloud Appreciation Society, created by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, where you will find cloud images and events, observation tools, information on clouds in art, music and poetry, cloud facts emailed daily, and access for upload of your personal cloud-spotting efforts.

Or, if you are one of those mesmerized by phytoplankton, yes, there is a place for you too: Fjord Phyto, sponsored by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where you can train to take water samples in Arctic and Antarctic fjords and submit them for comparative study of these key, ubiquitous, almost invisible exemplars of intense biodiversity.

Follow turtles? Count birds? Pick your interest. For the citizen scientist, there has never been a better time nor more prolific means to be curious about our ocean world.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

The Outlaw Ocean, Part Four: The Vast Expanse

image credit: Adam Dean for The Outlaw Ocean
Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier


This week we conclude our four-part series dedicated to The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina, Investigative Reporter for the New York Times and new advisor to the W2O.

After 4 years of reporting across the world on vivid and corrupt aspects of the ocean, what comes of it? What conclusions can be made? How can we apply what is to be learned from this remarkable adventure?

Urbina writes, “Impunity is the norm at sea not just because of the lack of enforcement but also due to the cast of characters out there who, with questionable credentials and motives, are left to take up the slack. Bureaucrats rather than investigators conduct what rare inspections actually occur on vessels suspected of environmental or labor abuses. Vigilantes and private mercenaries, as much as police or navy officers, patrol the high seas and pursue scofflaws on the floating armories or in the chases. What rules apply in international waters have been crafted over the years more by diplomats and the fishing and shipping industry than by lawmakers or labor lawyers. This had made commercial secrecy a higher priority than crime prevention.”

"Mostly I explored the dark underbelly of this offshore frontier, places where the worst instincts of our human species thrive and flourish. But I also witnessed unparalleled beauty and true marvel."

“I met bizarre, sometimes heroic characters in a setting that drowned the senses, a world with brighter sun, louder waves, and stronger wind than I previously knew to exist, as if I’d been parachuted into one of those fanciful maps the medieval cartographers dreamed up.”

“One particular afternoon comes to mind. I stood on the front deck of a ship in the South Atlantic Ocean. Under an apricot sunset, I watched a winged fish fly through the air for hundreds of feet. Moments later, several birds dove into the ocean and swam deep underwater equally as far. That night was cloudless, the sky was big as it ever gets. A night, shooting stars left white slashes like chalk lines on a blackboard. The most dazzling streaks, though, were not in the sky but underwater. As fish darted through certain areas, the sea was slashed with glowing blue lines, the result of a mesmerizing defense mechanism of bio-luminescent plankton that allows them to produce the light. “

“What grabbed me that day was how much of this place is magically upside down: fish in the air, birds underwater, white streaks above us, blue below. Part of its beauty is its exotic unpredictability. The wonder of it all is magnetic, and each time I returned to land, I felt an intense longing for this place, homesick for a location not my home, despite the suffering I’d seen there.”

“But there was something else that…transcended both the darkness and the beauty offshore. I thought back on the black expanse that swallowed that small airplane in Palau or how that same sort of vastness had long provided an excuse for dumping waste into the world’s oceans. I thought about the crushing boredom at sea and the distinct way it tortured seafarers on abandoned vessels and armed guards on the floating weapons depots. I thought about the silence that fed gruffness on so many ships and how it bred resignation among the raped, robbed, and drowned men of the Oyang fleet. While some of those men paid a heavy price for breaking this silence, I also recalled the regard reaped by the magic-pipe whistle-blower who spoke up.”

“The snapshots seemed to demonstrate that the outlaw ocean and the ships that traverse it are defined not just by the people who work these waters but also by intangible forces like silence, boredom, and vastness. I’d go a step further: the ocean is outlaw not because it is inherently good or bad but because it is a void, like the silence is to sound or boredom is to activity. While we have for centuries embraced and touted the life that springs from these waters, we have tended to ignore its role as a refuge of depravity. But the outlaw ocean is real, and has been for centuries, and until we reckon with that fact, we can forget about ever taming or protecting this frontier.”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

IAN URBINA is an award-winning investigative reporter with the New York Times. Urbina’s new book The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier is now available wherever books are sold.

The Outlaw Ocean, Part Three: Illegal Dumping

The outlaw ocean, a space apart, hidden from view, a place of rampant criminality and exploitation. This week we offer part three of a four-part series devoted to The Outlaw Ocean, a new book by award-winning New York Times investigative journalist Ian Urbina.

“For centuries,” Urbina writes, “humanity has viewed the ocean as a metaphor for infinity. The assumption was — and frankly still is for many people — that the enormity of the sea came with a limitless ability to absorb and metabolize all.”

“The cruise ship industry is one of the more bizarre creations of modern society, a floating jumble of contradictions. It peddles freedom and exploration, but the actual experience is designed to be predictable, choreographed, and familiar… The ships have grown so large that they have become floating cities — holding as many as five thousand passengers — and as with all cities there are parts of them that people would rather not know about… Despite their image as safe and squeaky-clean, family-friendly getaways on the high seas, these cruise liners are often massive polluters…Cruise liners produce millions of gallons of oily water. This is the runoff of lubricants and leaks that drip from the ship’s many diesel generators, air compressors, main propulsion engines, and other machines that drain into the ship’s bilge tanks. Other liquid wastes accumulate too. ‘‘Black water’ refers to sewage from hundreds of toilet flushing day in and day out. ‘Gray water’ comes from washing dishes and clothing…or from slimy food scraps and grease from the ship galleys and restaurants. Some of these liquids can be released into the ocean after light treatment, but ship engineers are responsible for ensuring that none of the nastiest fluids get discharged. Sometimes, though, these engineers and their companies resort to magic pipes to make those fluids disappear.”

The Caribbean Princess, owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, provides an example, found guilty of such dumping through secret outlets revealed by videos and whistleblower accounts. In 2016, prosecutors affirmed the facts, and a US federal judge found Carnival had “high consciousness of guilt” and levied a $40 million fine.

Urbina writes, “A hundred years ago, what happened on the Caribbean Princess would have been a non-issue…The practice of ships dumping oil and other waste at sea was perfectly legal for most of maritime history. And dump we did. After World War II, Russia, the UK, and the United States loaded about a million tons of un-exploded mustard gas bombs and other chemical munitions onto ships, which were dispatched offshore to scuttle the material overboard.”

“Well into the twentieth century the rhyming mantra among scientists was dilution is the solution for pollution. As a result, the more toxic the waste, the more likely the ocean would be its final resting place. More than a dozen countries…dumped nuclear sludge and unwanted reactors, several still containing radioactive fuel, into the Arctic, the North Atlantic, Southeast Asia, and off the coast of Africa…And yet, for all the detritus pitched overboard, the worst ocean pollution gets there by air or directly from land. Trash blown from streets and landfills ends up first in inland waterway before making its way downstream to the sea. Much of the rubbish is made of plastic…”

“Airborne pollution is a less visible but even more destructive form of dumping. Over the past two centuries, the concentration of mercury in the top three hundred feet of the ocean has triples because of human activity, especially the burning of coal. Likewise, carbon dioxide levels in the air have risen 25% since 1958. A great deal of this extra carbon has dissolved into the ocean, thereby dangerously spiking carbon levels…to create carbonic acid and perilously high acidity levels… affecting marine life and ocean ecosystems, dissolving the shells of many creatures, and leading to hazardous mercury levels in some types of fish.”

Urbina concludes, “The real crime of ocean dumping…is that it is barely seen as a crime.” And this, of course is the crux of the matter. If there is no consequence to an action, no accountability, then there is no failed responsibility, no guilt, no regulation, no enforcement, no change to follow, no mitigation of existing practice, and no shift away from destructive practice to constructive purpose. The Outlaw Ocean reveals just how deep and wide the problem is, as wide and deep as the ocean itself, finite and threatened.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.


The Outlaw Ocean: Corruption in Port Cities

The outlaw ocean, a space apart, hidden from view, a place of rampant criminality and exploitation. This week we offer part two of a four-part series devoted to The Outlaw Ocean, a new book by award-winning New York Times investigative journalist Ian Urbina.


Not all maritime corruption occurs at sea. Ports are key points where ships and crews come in contact with authority, sometimes for good when vessels can be apprehended for illegal fishery, the captains arrested, the boat destroyed, and the crews sent home, sometimes for bad when port fees can be extorted, fake repair bills and docking charges applied, fines adjudicated, schedules interrupted resulting in cargo spoilage and failed deliveries, ships condemned and held hostage as leverage for inflated shippers’ ransom, and possibly fraudulent appropriation through a forced public auction or judicial sale.

“For all the expense imposed by this sort of port corruption,” Urbina writes, “shipping is still highly lucrative because most seasoned operators know whom to pay off and how to pass to consumers these hidden and inevitable costs of doing business. More than 90% of the world’s goods, from fuel to food to merchandise, is carried to market by sea, and bribery in ports adds hundreds of millions of dollars each year in unofficial import taxes and added costs of cargo and ship fuel, which in turn raise transport costs, insurance fees, and sticker prices by more than 10%.”

“There are also geopolitical costs to the world’s vast ‘phantom fleet’ of purloined ships, which are virtually impossible to track as they are used to carry out a broad area of crimes. In Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, for example, phantom ships are used to transport fighters tied to Islamic militant groups, and they were used in 2012 by the terrorists who attacked Mumbai. In Iran and Iraq, phantom ships have been popular or circumventing international oil or weapons embargoes. Elsewhere they are typically used for other purposes: in Southeast Asia, human trafficking, piracy and illegal fishing; in the Caribbean, smuggling guns and drugs, and off the coast of West Africa, transporting illegal bunker.“

“Some peculiarities in maritime law play into the crooks’ hands. A captain’s logbook carries unusual legal weight in a courtroom, for example. If a corrupt charterer pays a captain to write that the cargo was damaged during the trip, that ship is probably not leaving port until someone pays up. Ship sales are also more anonymous and final than sales of other types of property. This is one reason why ship purchases are a popular method for laundering money and dumping assets that corrupt individuals or corporations don’t want governments to find and tax. Because a ship may be bought in one country, flagged to another, and parked in a third, it becomes difficult for countries to trace the origins of the money invested in a ship.”

“[More anonymous] ship trading also makes stealing easier. If the rightful owner can catch up with a stolen painting, car, or artifact at an auction, he can make a claim and, in may cases, repossess his property. Such redress is far more difficult under international maritime law. A vessel sold at a judicial auction is deemed in industry parlance to have had its ‘face washed” clean of liens and other previous debts, including mortgages.”

“Police struggle to chase stolen ships. In most cases, marine authorities can pursue, intercept, board, and seize a foreign-flagged ship on the high seas only if the pursuit started in the authorities’ territorial waters and the kept the fleeing visual in visual contact the entire time. In many courts of law, visual contact means neither satellite nor radar observation but actual line of sight with the human eye. From the bridge of a ship, that’s usually about seven miles in clear weather.”

“If a chase starts on the high seas, it’s even more fraught. Except under special circumstances, a ship may only be stopped in international waters by a warship of its own flag, or with permission granted from the fleeing ship’s flag state. Liberia, the country with the most vessels sailing under its flag — more than 4,100 — has no warships. The country with the second most, Panama, does not routinely operate warships beyond its own coast. Therein lies the beauty of international ship thievery: crooks only have to run if someone’s chasing them, and that’s rarely the case.”

If you look at the routes of ships from a satellite perspective, you can trace a complicated network of passages across every ocean to every part of the world, a complex web of commerce and financial exchange that reveals our connectivity but also hides an equally diverse, less visible skein of corruption. Follow the money, they say, and when you do so across the ocean, you will inevitably find moral indifference and overt crime for which all of us pay the price.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Outlaw Ocean: Shining a Light on the Dark Side of Life on the Ocean

The outlaw ocean, a space apart, hidden from view, a place of rampant criminality and exploitation. This week we offer part one of a four-part series devoted to The Outlaw Ocean, a new book by award-winning New York Times investigative journalist Ian Urbina. What follows are select excerpts from this remarkable journalistic endeavor, one that begins to shine a light on just some of the dark side of life on the world ocean of which most of us are completely unaware.

“There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But the perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.”

So reads the jacket copy for a remarkable new book, The Outlaw Ocean, by Ian Urbina, investigative reporter for the New York Times and W2O Advisor, to which we will devote the next four weeks to expose just some of the dark side of life at sea of which most of us are completely unaware.

In his Introduction, Urbina writes:

“About a hundred miles off the coast of Thailand, three dozen Cambodian boys and men worked barefoot all day and into the night on the deck of a purse seiner fishing ship. Fifteen-foot swells climbed the sides of the ship, clipping the crew below the knees. Ocean spray and fish innards made the floor skating-rink slippery. Seesawing erratically from the rough seas and gale winds, the deck was an obstacle course of jagged tackle, spinning winches, and tall stacks of five-hundred pound nets.”

“If they were not fishing, the crew sorted their catch and fixed their nets, which were prone to ripping. One boy, his shirt smudged with fish guts, proudly showed off his missing two fingers, severed by a net that had coiled around a spinning crank. Their hands, which virtually never fully dried, had open wounds, slit from fish scales and torn from the nets’ friction. The boys stitched closed the deeper cuts themselves. Infections were constant. Captains never lacked for amphetamines to help the crews work longer, but they rarely stocked antibiotics for infected wounds.”

“Virtually all of the crew had debt to clear, part of their indentured servitude, a ‘travel now, pay later’ labor system that requires working to pay off money they often had to borrow to sneak illegally into a new country… This was a brutal place.”

Urbina’s inquiry spanned forty months, 251,000 miles, 85 planes, forty cities, every continent, over 12,000 nautical miles across all five oceans and twenty other seas. “My goal was not only to report on the plight of sea slaves but also to bring to life the full cast of characters who roam the high seas. They included vigilante conservationists, wreck thieves, maritime mercenaries, defiant whalers, offshore repo men, sea-bound abortionists, clandestine oil dumpers, elusive poachers, abandoned seafarers, and cast-adrift stowaways.” In the end, the success of Urbina’s narrative is “to bear witness to a world rarely seen.”

“At times,” he writes, “the reporting process was so zigzagging it felt less like journalism than an attention deficit disorder. But the more I traveled, the more one story led to another — none of them neat or tidy, none of them split clearly between right and wrong. Like the oceans themselves, the stories that emerged were too sprawling to force into a single, straight-line narrative.”

“For all the adventure, though, the most important thing I saw from ships all around the world…was an ocean woefully under-protected and the mayhem and misery often faced by those who work those waters.”

When we think of the ocean, our first thought is of the beauty and the creatures there. That perception, in and of itself , is enough to fight for, what Jacques Cousteau famously characterized as “protecting what we love.” A larger view amplifies our understanding to perceive the ocean as an integrated global technical, financial, and political system that informs how we live our lives on land, and sea, looking backward, and looking forward, to suggests ways to incorporate this meaning into strategies for mitigating environmental impact, and inventing new alternative systems and processes as applied action through ocean conservation tools.

But Urbina shows us something else: the social ocean, a place on which real people are immersed in a human search for livelihood and freedom, brutally confronted and compromised by avarice, servitude, invisible corporate and governmental malfeasance, and collective indifference to equity and human rights. His is a courageous and important opening to the reality that lies behind the beauty and fecundity of marine resources, that must be an integral part of what we must know about our ocean world and of what we must do about it for the benefit of all mankind.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.