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Istanbul Man Turns Passion For Ship Spotting Into Beneficial Hobby


Now to Istanbul, a city bisected by one of the world's busiest waterways - the Bosporus Strait. NPR's Peter Kenyon paid a visit to a man who spends a lot of his spare time watching the ships that sail up and down the strait.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Yoruk Isik was trained in international relations and makes his living as a marine consultant, but his true love is ship-spotting. From the rooftop of his Istanbul apartment building, Isik has a fine view of a stretch of the Bosporus not too far from the entrance to the Black Sea. He says one day he realized that he could make his hobby useful by documenting many of the more than 50,000 military, commercial and other ships that transit the Bosporus every year.

YORUK ISIK: I thought, I can put out some factual news about exactly where I'm living. And I really love Istanbul, also. And apparently, people really were interested with such information that wasn't available because my Twitter account got rather popular.

KENYON: Some 40,000 Twitter followers later, Isik is still snapping photos and writing up social media posts on the submarines, huge commercial cargo ships and warships he sees from Russia, Turkey, even from time to time, the United States. Isik says he grew to love putting out raw, open-source information for all to see. Plus, he'd have been watching the ships anyway just for fun. He couldn't help getting a little excited in April, when the U.S. Navy announced two destroyers would be heading up the Bosporus. That plan was shelved after Russia warned that such a deployment would not contribute to regional stability. Instead, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter came up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Naturally, Isik knew that it was the first such cutter to make the voyage in some eight years.

ISIK: This is a Legend-class cutter that arrived. Now, as we speak, the vessel is in the Black Sea. It is lightly armed, so it's actually perfect for this kind of mission of freedom of navigation, et cetera, which is - right now it's a big subject.

KENYON: Isik works with other ship-spotters and sometimes knows what vessel is on its way. But he says part of the fun for him is when the plan suddenly changes

ISIK: The beauty of ship-spotting in the Bosporus and general life in Istanbul - I think like in English, there's a term, like, in a New York minute or something, right?

KENYON: That's right.

ISIK: Like, it's like, you can really translate that to in an Istanbul minute.

KENYON: He says, of course, it's disappointing to miss an important ship, but he says he makes up for it with the unexpected discoveries.

ISIK: You think you miss an important ship; one hour later, a ship passes, which doesn't look necessarily so interesting, et cetera, but that is the ship that is maybe carrying the undeclared wheat to Maduro, to Venezuela. And, like, they are out of wheat, and here is a ship passing that - it's like, you don't know what's the next actually so-important ship.

KENYON: Isik is part of a loose network of ship-spotters watching maritime traffic on the Aegean Sea, near the Straits of Gibraltar and to the north in the Baltic Sea or the Sea of Murmansk. He stresses that what they do isn't journalism; he just posts what he sees from his Istanbul neighborhood. He does take steps to reduce the chance that his information will be used for real-time tracking. For instance, he will wait several hours after seeing a ship before posting its location to his Twitter account. I asked Isik if, after years of ship-spotting, is it still as much fun? Does it make him want to get up in the morning?

ISIK: Oh, 100%. And actually, if it wasn't ship-watching, maybe I wouldn't get up (laughter). I wouldn't get up that early, I will say. It's just everything I like. And that is kind of like Istanbul - it's just so unknown, very multicultural. It's very uncertain, and you don't know what's going to happen next (laughter).

KENYON: Bosporus ship-spotter Yoruk Isik keeping an eye on the traffic that never seems to stop floating by. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "LIGHTHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.