Ships on the Water

Identification & Information

The current edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships costs £605, and for merchant shipping, Lloyd’s Register of Ships 2010-11 will set you back £1,365. However, if you want to find out about the ships which visit our waters, there are other options, thanks to the internet…

You will have noticed that warships have an identification number, e.g ‘D32′, painted in large characters on the side of the hull. If you type the word “ship”, followed by the identification number, into the Google search box, the name of the ship will usually come up immediately.

Even if you can’t see the number, you can now identify ships by accessing websites which utilise the AIS, or Automatic Identification System.
This is an automated tracking system whereby ships exchange data such as position, course, and speed. Each ship has a unique ID, and can be tracked on systems equipped to use the AIS data.

If you visit the relevant page at, for instance, you can see
the current situation in the port of Plymouth. There is a list of vessels currently in port (you can get details of any of them by clicking on their names), and there are analytic charts of recent arrivals and departures.

You will also notice a small window containing an interactive Google satellite view, with coloured markers for the ships.
You can pan (LH click & hold) and zoom (mouse wheel) the field of view, and if you hover the mouse cursor over the markers, the name and details of each vessel will be revealed. A bigger and better version of the interactive map is available via the “Live Map” tab at the top left of the page. If you see a map of the whole world here, just pan and zoom to get the area you want, and see the traffic. You can click the top right of the display to choose satellite or map modes.

Another AIS-based site is, where, via the following link, you can find
a continually updated view of the approaches to Plymouth, complete with named ship-markers.

You can’t pan and zoom this one, but it’s easy to use the drop-down list (top left) to choose another view, such as Plymouth Docks, or indeed anywhere in the waters surrounding the British Isles.

You can also discover the current whereabouts of any ship, by entering its name in the Ship Search box at the top right and clicking ‘Go’.

For keen ship spotters,’s Gallery
offers thousands of clickable photographs. And claims to have the largest archive of ship photos in the world.

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