The Marine Traffic app changed the way I look at the ocean

An app used primarily by cargo ship captains shouldn't be this much fun.

As I type this, the Gas Utopia LPG Tanker is making its way along the Mississippi River, not far from my house in New Orleans. It’s a Panamanian vessel, call-sign 3EXG8, with a deadweight of about 28,000 tons. Before the day’s out, it will complete its voyage after spending nearly eleven days en route from Mejillones, Chile, arriving in the small Louisiana port town of Donaldsonville. In all likelihood, nobody needs to be aware of this information outside of Gas Utopia’s crew, some customs agents, and a few dockworkers in Donaldsonville. I certainly don’t, but thanks to an app called Marine Traffic, I am goddamn Poseidon, Lord of the Seas.

Living in New Orleans, like pretty much anywhere else in America, for that matter, has been particularly difficult these last few months. Louisiana is one of the country’s hardest hit areas for the COVID-19 pandemic, per capita. For a long time, virtually everything in town had closed up shop to slow infection rates. Then, like so many other places in this country, a lot of those places reopened when they shouldn’t have in the name of “the economy.” Who the hell knows what’s going to happen here in New Orleans as we head into the worst part of hurricane season, but until then, I’m virtually escaping aboard ships charted by Marine Traffic.

The MarineTraffic website.

Sure, I suppose Marine Traffic has actual, important official industry uses. You can sign up for premium access options to get even more features like ownership information and in-depth technical details (which, before you ask: yes, I have paid for some). There’s even an augmented reality add-on to quickly identify ships that I’m itching to try out next time I’m along the water. But the $4.99 app’s basic services are enough of an oceanic escape to warrant its download, even if you’re a landlubber. It’s real-time navigational trackers allow you to get a glimpse at an integral part of the world that few of us ever pay much attention to, much less actively investigate. It’s such a mundane aspect of modern life until you pause to look at all its ever-changing intricacies.

What boat is that on the horizon? We're about to find out.

While Marine Traffic’s main mapping interface is rudimentary, there’s something oddly charming to its bare-bones layout. This isn’t a sleek app called MRIN TRFFK or something equally insipid seeking to “disrupt” the marina market—it’s a program made specifically for people who have a real need for it, and the weirdo hobbyists like myself hanging out on the shorelines.

One of my favorite things to do before the beastly summer heat reached its unbearable, annual zenith here was to head to a park along the Mississippi River, open a beer, and pull up Marine Traffic on my iPhone. The literal thousands of ships making their ways across the globe look like flocks of birds mid-migration, each point containing dozens of lives within them. Zooming in closer to my location, I can focus on the handful of vessels literally floating through my life. Everyday, The world may feel like it’s come to a halt here on land, but the ships drifting by say otherwise.