Maritime apps for your next coastal holiday

Of all the joys of summer, few are as irresistible as a holiday by the water, whether it’s an ocean, a lake or a city harbour. You can swim, sail, fish and take part in the ancient tradition of relaxing.

But a coastal holiday is also an opportunity for discovery. Perhaps you would like to learn how to tie fishing and boat knots? Or decipher the colorful signal flags do you look at ships and in shops by the sea? With the right app, you can turn a vacation on the water into something deeper: identify the fish you just caught or the ship passing by, find out about the shell you’ve seen or the lake you’re diving into, explore nearby shark migrations, and study the rhythms of the moon and the tide, while keeping your toes in the sand.

When I saw a ship slip into a harbor one evening I wondered aloud where it could have been. “Let’s find out,” said a friend, who then pulled out his phone and opened MarineTraffic — Ship Tracking, an app that can identify vessels near and far.

The app’s live map lets you zoom in and out of major ports and shipping routes around the world to see ships, their details and itineraries. Each vessel is represented by a colored icon, including dark blue for passenger vessels, orange for fishing vessels and purple for yachts and pleasure craft. For example, while looking at a Norwegian cruise ship on the Hudson River in New York, I opened the map (there is a desktop version on, pressed the corresponding icon and was immediately shown a picture of the ship with information such as name, flag , last known port (it had been at Kings Wharf in Bermuda two days earlier), speed and status (it was moored as opposed to, say, underway using one engine). Later, when the ship left, I opened the app and saw at a glance that it was now on its way to Norfolk, Va. (You can also search for a specific vessel by name.)

Cost: Free; $9.99 a year for a “starter” subscription with more vessel and port information, and features like an augmented reality tool to identify ships using your smartphone camera. Note: The app uses a network of Coastal Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers to display vessel positions. It costs extra to unlock details for a vessel that is out of AIS range.

Are you planning boating, fishing or camping this summer? Knots 3D uses color animations to teach you how to tie more than 150 knots, from those that can help you catch a fish to those that can save your life. Read about the use and history of the knots, adjust the speed of the animations or pause them, rotate a knot for a different perspective and use your finger to tie and untie it. There are several ways to search for knots you want to master, including by category (like boating, fishing, and camping) or knot type (like anchor, bowline, and fisherman’s eye). What’s more, the app doesn’t require internet, so you can practice even while you’re abroad.

Price: $5.99.

You never know what creatures might share the water with you on summer vacation. Or do you?

This app from Ocearch, a non-profit organization that facilitates ocean and fisheries research around the world, allows users to follow the migrations of sharks (and some other marine animals, such as turtles) tagged with satellite tracking technology. In July, for example, I could see on the app’s map that an 883-pound great white shark that was more than 11 feet long was in the Atlantic Ocean off a nearby beach. The app allows you to follow such sharks as they travel thousands of miles (select “all pings” on the app’s map to see both historical and recent tracking activity). Meanwhile, data gathered from tracking helps scientists understand the sharks’ migration patterns and life cycle to better protect them and, ultimately, the oceans as well.

Cost: Free.

Open Earth 3D – World Atlas for a virtual globe that spins with the swipe of a finger, so you can explore wherever you are – or long to be. On vacation to the Great Lakes in Wisconsin? Click on Lake Superior to read about the first people who came to the region thousands of years ago. On the coast of South Carolina? Tap on the Atlantic Ocean to find out how big it is. Or tap the Caribbean Current to find out where it flows. Holiday in a big city? Tap a monument or landmark, like the Key West Lighthouse in Florida, to learn about it.

The information about the places comes from Wikipedia, which is easily accessible online. And Earth 3D lacks the granularity of, say Google Earth app. Nevertheless, it is a charming and pleasant way to spark interest in geography and history, especially for young people.

Price: $2.99.

(For a weirder compendium, try Atlas Obscura Travel Guide app where you can discover lesser-known sights around you or elsewhere in the world on an interactive map. And you can’t beat the price: free.)

Let’s say you’re strolling along the coast when you spot an unfamiliar object. Whether it’s a shell, a piece of coral, a plant or an insect, try consulting Google Lens. Just point your smartphone camera at what you want to know about, and Lens will search the internet for visual hits and information. When it recently targeted a shell, for example, it found pages of images that revealed it was likely a moon snail.

You can also aim the camera at a building or a statue to discover the story. And you don’t have to do it in real time either: Lens works on pictures in pictures too. Some objects produce more useful results than others, but Lens is undoubtedly a powerful tool. Available as an app for Android; iOS users can download the Google app, which lets you search images using Lens.

Cost: Free.

This digital reference manual for boaters provides information on important matters such as preventing collisions. But even beachgoers who never set foot on board can use Navigation Rules Pro to decode the sights and sounds of a seaside vacation. For example, you can find out what the colorful flags and pennants mean (and how each one corresponds to a letter) with the app’s guide to the International Code of Signals, a system that vessels use to communicate. Just type “ICS” into the search function to read about the ways signals can be sent and to see flag images, their meanings, associated letters and phonetic alphabet letters.

Or maybe you’d like to study international Morse code using the app’s dot-and-dash map (just search for “Morse”), or learn more about the Earth and its coordinates by selecting the “nautical charts” section. Much of this information can be found for free online, although the app contains it in one place. So you can sit at a harborside bar and look at things you’re curious about—like how waves form on the ocean—with one hand while you sip a beer with the other. Only for iOS.

Price: $4.99.

Keeping track of time may not be necessary on every type of vacation, but if you’re hoping to catch the sunrise or cross a sandbar before high tide, a little planning is in order. Tides Near Me makes it easy to check currents and find the time of the next tide, sunset or moonrise. Look further ahead by pressing the “week” tab. Cost: Free.

For a more refined experience, consider spending a few dollars on Tide Alert (NOAA) – United States, which has an inviting, interactive interface and uses tide forecast data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A chart with a wavy line represents high and low tide. A yellow dot on the line indicates the current time and tide height. You can use your finger to drag the yellow dot forward or backward, virtually traveling back in time to see what the tides were, or forward to see what they are predicted to be. Moon and sun icons on the map show the times of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset. You can also see that information at a glance by pressing “rise & set”. To view monthly moon phase calendars, tap the calendar icon. iOS only. Cost: free trial, then $3.99 for three months; $11.99 a year.

Surfers might also want to take a look MSW surf warning app from Magicseaweed for forecasts that include surf and swell height. Cost: Free. An ad-free, pro version with features like stay surf cams from around the world are available for $12.99 a month; $99.99 a year (free trial available).

And if you plan to fish, check out FishAngler app to explore fishing spots and see tidal phase and barometric pressure charts, weather and wind conditions, sun and moon conditions, as well as a “fishing forecast” that suggests the best times to fish based on Solunar tables (how the moon and sun can affect anglers). Even if you don’t manage to catch anything, you can use the app to learn about top species in your region, whether it’s an American catfish or a yellowtail snapper. Cost: Free.

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