Sailing The High Seas With Marinetraffic.com

sailing
It’s a beautiful weekend here in Santander, Spain, and my son and I can see the Hanoi and the Barbet Arrow, two giant container ships, moored in the harbor. The Finland-registered Misana, which I saw sail in from my office window, is moored out of sight in the dock beyond. The Cape Cee, a 118-meter-long Spanish vessel, left Santander a few days ago and is sailing towards the Strait of Gibraltar at 10.1 knots.

We know all this because of my kid’s latest online obsession. Marinetraffic.com combines Google Maps with an online database of ships from around the world, updating their position in real time. Zooming in on spots like the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bay of Biscay, you realize just how many ships are out there, linking far-flung economies. There are profiles of the ships with details of their registry and dimensions, and ports have their own profiles too.

Marinetraffic.com relies on voluntary registration, so some spots like the Red Sea are almost blank. With pirates hiding out in Puntland ready to swoop down on container ships, you can understand why captains on that route would be hesitant to join the website.

While incomplete, it’s a fun site that show kids an aspect of our world that we mostly take for granted. You can also use Google Maps as an educational tool. Used correctly, they can siphon some of your child’s obsession with your computer into something educational. Just don’t expect them to replace that persistent question, “Can I play video games?”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

A Vintage Submarine And Icebreaker In Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour

Tallinn
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.

The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.

Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.

Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.

Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.

%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.

This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.

Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.

If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Estonia’s Rich Art and Literature Scene!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Mission Aquarius: Journey To The World’s Last Undersea Research Station

mission aquariusFor 50 years, the underwater Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys has been an important center for oceanic exploration. Today, it is the last remaining undersea research station in the world. But funding for the program is about to be cut and unless a new source is found, Aquarius will soon be shut down.

To bring attention to this issue, One World One Ocean and MacGillivray Freeman Films are teaming up for Mission Aquarius, a six-day underwater expedition and media campaign headed up by Dr. Sylvia Earle, an oceanic research pioneer and National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence. By documenting the expedition, these parties hope to bring attention to the accomplishments of the Aquarius Reef Base, as well as highlight the importance of oceanic research and the challenges facing the world’s oceans.

“We know more about the moon than we do about our ocean, which sustains all life on this planet,” Earle said in a release. “Only by making undersea exploration and research an international priority can we learn what we need to know about the ocean to protect it and protect ourselves.”

Mission Aquarius, which runs from July 16 to 21, will provide a fascinating glimpse at life 60 feet under the sea. Individuals will be able to dive into real-time footage on Ustream.TV, explore related content on One World One Ocean‘s website and sign an online petition to signal their support for continued program funding.


Video: The Beauty And Science Of Bioluminescent Waves


There’s nothing as bewitching as seeing bioluminescent waves crashing onto a night shore. I first saw these as a kid and the memory has always stuck with me. The stars above, the glimmering lights of distant freighters far out to sea and the weird blue surf rushing at me. It’s one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.

How couldn’t it be? This glowing surf is beautiful and mysterious. Well, it’s mysterious if you aren’t a marine biologist. Check out this video to learn just how waves can glow in the dark. It will take some of the mystery out of it, but none of the beauty. Also check out this amazing photo of bioluminescent waves in the Maldives that glowed brighter than the Milky Way.

If you want to learn more, the American Museum of Natural History is having an exhibition titled “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” running until January 6, 2013.

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe - While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English - Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport - This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country - While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.