Ship Tracking Websites and Apps Help Avoid Major Collisions

Thanks to the continued refinement of technology that began in the 1990s, mariners can keep an eye on shipping vessels to avoid collisions or to track a certain craft.

Ships are tracked in real time by a special radar system called Automated Identification System (AIS). The system identifies the type of ship, its location and, if moving, its direction and speed. The data is posted on websites and mobile apps to allow mariners to track traffic to enhance safety as they chart their course. In addition, ports use tracking for safety and surveillance. 

A brief history of AIS begins with the grounding of Exxon Valdez

In the United States, the history of AIS began on March 24, 1989, with the oil tanker Exxon Valdez running aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. As a result of the grounding, and oil spill, the United States Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA-90), part of which called for the Coast Guard to develop a vessel tracking system for tankers going into Alaska. 

Subsequently, worldwide tracking laws were created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU). By 2016, full AIS regulations went into effect worldwide, with AIS being required on all commercial vessels, including fishing vessels and passenger vessels 65 feet or longer. Vessels must continuously broadcast their identity and position over public airwaves using unencrypted VHS radio signals.

Tracking of vessels is easy and fast using your mobile phone

The AIS data is free and unrestricted, so companies have created websites and phone apps that communicate worldwide ship information in real time. An example is, one of several top-rated ship tracking websites. The site allows the user to monitor marine traffic in real time or find a specific vessel.

The image below, taken from the website, shows marine traffic on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico:

All vessels are shown in their position and direction. Those colored red are tankers, while green represents cargo vessels. Purple vessels are pleasure craft, light blue vessels are tugs and special craft, and those colored dark blue are passenger vessels. 
This screen grab from shows data when you click on a specific boat icon. In this case, the pop-up shows a photo of the tanker, its name, the next port, ETA, speed and country under which it is registered. 

A further click on the “More info” tab reveals more detailed data, as shown below.

The more detailed information on the vessel includes a listing of its port calls.

Ship-tracking websites and apps offer choices and features

Here is a brief list of some of the many ship-tracking websites and apps, starting with websites:

Marine-Traffic. Marine-Traffic records at least 800 million vessel positions and 18 million vessel and port-related events monthly. In addition, it offers information on about 650,000 marine assets such as vessels, ports, and lights.

FleetMon. The site tracks 500,000 vessels, with a real-time view of the marine traffic and access information on operations monitoring, logistics scheduling, fleet tracking and traffic analysis.

Cruisemapper. This website not only tracks thousands of cruise ships, but includes information on their deck layouts, cabin options and whether they’ve had accidents or incidents.

The top tracking mobile apps include (by operating system):

Android and iOS:



Linxup, VT Explorer, VesselFinder and SeaRM360. 


MarineTraffic, Boat Watch and Ship Finder.

Ship locator apps enhance boating safety 

These new ship-finder websites and apps help pleasure craft avoid collisions, particularly with large ships, no matter what the visibility or weather. But remember, the apps are not a substitute for safe boating among other pleasure craft. In these cases, basic adherence to U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules still applies: watch your speed, keep a constant lookout, and remember the rule when approaching head-on, which is to alter course to starboard, so each vessel passes port to port.


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