Tools and strategies to identify and track ships for investigative stories

A toolkit for uncovering a merchant ship’s location, routes, ownership, and inspections in four simple steps using open-source web databases.

On January 16, 2024, the bulk carrier Zografia came under missile attack in the Red Sea. A widely circulated video captures the moment of the explosion at the ship’s bow, exhibiting considerable force, followed by crew members seen fleeing in the opposite direction. A spokesperson for Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the assault. 

The Houthis, in alignment with Hamas, engage in attacks targeting Israeli-owned merchant ships or vessels destined for Israel in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, situated between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea (refer to iMEdD’s analysis of the Houthis). This strait holds immense strategic significance for the movement of goods between Asia and Europe, with an estimated 12% of global trade passing through the Red Sea. Major shipping companies redirect their vessels, necessitating a lengthy detour around the African continent, adding approximately 3,500 nautical miles – or ten days – to the journey. 

On the same day as the attack on the Zografia vessel, the BBC reported that the Greek-owned, Maltese-flagged bulk carrier was en route from Vietnam to Israel. There exist dedicated open sources for gathering the above information. iMEdD outlines four steps for swiftly identifying a merchant ship from the newsroom, using the Zografia incident as an illustrative example. 

STEP 1 – Location

Open maritime databases provide real-time information on the whereabouts of merchant ships. One such database is By inputting a ship’s name – in our case “Zografia” – users can track its position on a map. As of March 5th, the vessel appears to be docked in Perama, undergoing repairs. This is also corroborated by a report from Kathimerini newspaper. The ship’s location is relayed through the operation of the AIS-Automatic Identification System, a requirement mandated by the International Maritime Organization for all vessels. 

This image, which is a screenshot from the platform, shows a map of the area of Perama in Piraeus. Colourful dots and symbols can be seen, symbolizing the existence of ships and boats in the area. The cursor has selected one of them, the ship Zografia, thus indicating that on that day, i.e. 5 March 2024, that ship was in Perama.
The location of the Zografia vessel on the morning of 5 March 2024. Screenshot from the database.

A search on reveals that there are other ships sharing the same name, underscoring the importance of ensuring accurate identification. Each merchant vessel is assigned a distinct seven-digit IMO Number, irrespective of changes in ownership, name, or flag. The IMO Number for the Zografia is 9486013. Furthermore, it is confirmed that the Zografia is a bulk carrier registered under the Maltese flag. 

STEP 2 – Position history, along with similar databases like, offer subscription services that provide precise details regarding a vessel’s recent exact locations. Additionally, other companies offer this information for free, such as Veson Nautical, a service and data provider for international maritime trade. We reached out to Veson Nautical via email ([email protected]) to request the position history of the Zografia over the past year. Within an hour, we received a response with an attached map providing the requested information, as shown below. 

This image shows a map of Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, South America and part of North America. There is a line showing the movement of the ship Zografia, from South America to Southeast Asia.
Map showing Zografia’s sailings, as sent to iMEdD by Veson Nautical.

STEP 3 – Ownership

Once we have obtained the IMO Number of the ship, we can search for the owner and the ship manager. Most databases require a paid subscription for this information, but requires a simple registration via email. By entering the IMO Number of the Zografia (9486013), we can ascertain that, as of February 2021, the Greek company Vulcanus Technical Maritime is both the owner and the ship manager/commercial manager. 

This image is a screenshot from On the left, the IMO number and name of the ship Zografia is shown, while on the right, the type of ship, year of construction and the flag under which it is sailing.
This image is a screenshot from On the left is a column of ship owning companies, in the centre the role of these companies, and on the right the date of acquisition of the ship. From this image, it can be seen that the ship Zografia has been owned by the Greek company Vulcanus Technical Maritime since February 2021.
Screenshots from the platform, searching for the owner and commercial manager of the ship Zografia.

STEP 4 – Inspections and violations

The database offers additional valuable information at no cost. This includes details on the ship’s inspections in various ports worldwide, potential violations categorised by type, and any port detentions, which represent the most severe penalty. From the inspection history provided, we learn that the Zografia was detained on November 14, 2023, at the Chinese port of Zhanjiang, due to 15 deficiencies primarily concerning lifesaving equipment and fire safety. 

This image is a screenshot from In it we get information about the inspections the ship Zografia has passed. The left column shows the countries in which the inspections were carried out, then the dates, and on the left the type of inspection and if violations were found, their number is indicated.
This image is a screenshot from The violations of the ship Zografia are indicated. In the left column, the type of violation is indicated, and on the right, specifically which violation is being referred to and their number.
Screenshots from the platform, looking at the inspections and possible infringements of the Zografia vessel.