The Friday Fillip: Shipping News


This is a small part of a stretch of ocean that’s being talked about a lot lately in connection with the Northern Gateway pipeline and the possibility of using Prince Rupert as an alternative western terminus. But this isn’t a fillip about pipelines, oil, or even oceans. It’s about those little coloured shapes that look like old-fashioned pen nibs — and even more about a website that tracks them. Some thousands of them all around the globe. gets data about ships’ positions and movement from AIS (automatic identification system) transponders on board vessels via VHF signals, the kind we use for some radio and TV transmission, and a network of volunteer relayers. A computer then coordinates the data and plots the positions of the ships on a Google map. The image below shows the regions around the world that are actively “covered” by this process, and the numbers in the green regions tell you how many vessels are in that region. Zooming in gives you the sort of graphic detail you see in this image of the traffic in a part of the East China Sea.

Click on image to enlarge.

All this is simply voyeuristic, of course, for a person who isn’t near an ocean, which is to say most of us. Yet there’s something fascinating about being able to see a tiny model of one of these great behemoths and know that its location on the sea is less than an hour old. You can find vessels by name (track your family on that cruise); distinguish passenger ships from tankers and yachts, etc.; or focus on the port of your choice (such as Halifax or Vancouver) for details as to what’s in, arriving, or departing. And if ships are your thing, there’s a gallery where you can find thousands of photographs of them and the harbours they ply between.

Oh, and for the two of you out there who are at full anorak, train-spotting level, there’s even an iPhone app version of the site.

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