A vehicle, in whatever medium, that looks like a civilian one, but is actually there to gather intelligence. Typically disguised as fishing trawlers, because they're so ubiquitous on the oceans that even though every navy and spy agency knows fishing trawlers are used for spying there's no way to know ''which'' ones are spy ships and which are genuinely just there to catch fish.

Has nothing to do with [[IThoughtItMeant romance between spies]].

Supertrope of VanInBlack.

See also BlackHelicopter.



[[folder: Anime and Manga ]]

* ''Manga/WaGaNaWaUmishi'': Disguised as a fishing boat. Allegedly from North Korea.


[[folder: Comic Books ]]

* In ''[[ComicBook/GIJoeARealAmericanHeroMarvel G.I. Joe Special Missions]]'' #1, the Joes stage a mission on a fake fishing trawler.


[[folder: Film ]]

* As a LongRunner series of movies about spies, ''Film/JamesBond'' films of course have several examples:
** An odd variation in ''Film/TheManWithTheGoldenGun''. James Bond discovers that the partially sunken RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Victoria harbor has been turned into a British listening post for spying on the Chinese.
** ''Film/ForYourEyesOnly'' has one accidentally fish up a SeaMine and sink.
** This goes back to ''Film/DrNo'': Quarrel runs a simple fishing boat, but he helps out secret agents all the time.
** Villainous example with Largo's "yacht" the ''Disco Volante'' on ''Film/{{Thunderball}}''. The version that appears on TheRemake ''Film/NeverSayNeverAgain'' even adds a pretty advanced secret communications room.
* ''Film/TheFinalCountdown'' has the ''[=USS=] Nimitz'' task force shadowed by a Soviet-flagged "fishing trawler" that isn't doing much fishing.
** Truth in television, see Real Life below.
* ''Film/TheWackiestShipInTheArmy'' (and the subsequent RecycledTheSeries) was set in the Pacific theater of World War II and centered about the crew of the a leaky wooden twin-masted schooner (the USS ''Echo'' in the movie and the USS ''Kiwi'' in the series) whose mission was to place spies behind Japanese lines. The ship's cover was an itinerant trading vessel sailing under a neutral flag.


[[folder: Literature ]]

* ''Literature/HonorHarrington'' presented many variations on this:
** Dedicated spy ships disguised as merchant vessels, sometimes trolling around for suspiciously long periods of time waiting for a cargo to arrive.
** Actual merchant vessels collecting what information they could for their government, including merchant ships captained by [[HomeGuard reserve officers]] from their home navies). These ships would sometimes be fitted out with better communications equipment or engines to help them gather info and run it home, in addition to carrying out their actual freight-hauling business.
** Fast [[{{Courier}} Courier Boats]], either [[DiplomaticImpunity operating in an official diplomatic capacity]] or simply under the employ of a merchant or journalist agency that would have legitimate need to send messages quickly.
** Merchant ships trying to shadow a military force on the move is much rarer (as it is very difficult behavior to justify InUniverse). The one time it happens, the Havenite warship being tailed [[RealityEnsues turns around and attacks their follower]] once it becomes clear there is no legitimate reason for them to be following them. Unfortunately for the destroyer crew, the merchant ship was actually a [[AWolfInSheepsClothing heavily armed privateer]], and the ensuing battle [[CurbStompBattle is a short one in the Privateer's favor.]]
* ''Polar Star'' by Martin Cruz Smith. The protagonist discovers that the Soviet factory ship he's working on is broadcasting fake submarine signals meant to be picked up by an American spy vessel -- one of the trawlers that provide their fish.
* ''Franchise/StarWarsLegends'':
** At one point in ''Literature/TheThrawnTrilogy'', smuggler and information broker Talon Karrde is discreetly informed by an ally that the ally's ships will attack the Imperial shipyard at Bilbringi. In order to spy on the resulting chaos, Karrde arranges for his ships to take on a legitimate shipping contract to deliver parts to Bilbringi (a ruse which he uses several times, equally often for spying or sabotage). [[MeaningfulBackgroundEvent While there]], they also happen to record a mysterious but trivial detail that ultimately proves highly valuable to the New Republic.
* Tom Clancy's ''Without Remorse'' has Russian "fishing trawlers" following a fleet battlegroup on a highly classified and sensitive mission. Fortunately, they're known to be gathering intel and are easily fooled.
* The titular ''Oregon'' of ''Literature/TheOregonFiles'' is a ship with a nearly derelict appearance that serves as a home base for its crew of former intelligence and special operations operatives.


[[folder: Live Action TV ]]

* ''Series/DoctorWho'': [[Recap/DoctorWhoS25E1RemembranceOfTheDaleks "Remembrance of the Daleks"]] has a variation. The Seventh Doctor encounters an antenna van that ''seems'' to be tracking who's paid their TV license fee, but is actually tracking alien (read: Dalek) energy signatures.
* An episode of ''Series/{{NCIS}}'' takes place aboard the USNS ''Chimera'', a naval "black ship" disguised as an ordinary tramp steamer. Its mission is confidentially revealed to be collecting microbial samples for potential bio-warfare research--and then ''that'' turns out to be a smokescreen. Its ''real'' mission is to recover an old Soviet nuclear warhead before Russian privateers do.


[[folder: Tabletop Games ]]

* Free Traders can sometimes do this in ''TabletopGame/{{Traveller}}''.


[[folder: Video Games ]]

* The second mission of ''VideoGame/AceCombat5TheUnsungWar'' has the player character and his squadron investigating a reconnaissance vessel that had launched [=UAVs=] near the Osean shoreline. Later in the game, the ''Andromeda'''s signal intercept capabilities play a key role in the plot.
* The Imperial Agent of ''Videogame/StarWarsTheOldRepublic'' is given a personal ship designed to look like a luxury cruiser but with the firepower of a heavy gunship.
* The GLA Bomb truck can serve this purpose in ''VideoGame/CommandAndConquerGenerals'', as it can be disguised as any vehicle (allied, hostile, or one of the neutrals that are there to be turned into {{Action Bomb}}s by the Terrorist unit) and is only revealed when detonating, which doesn't have to be done manually. Even better against AI opponents, who don't react ''at all'' to the random passenger car that's running over their infantry one by one.
* ''Your'' ship in ''VideoGame/SunlessSea''. Most of your early-game income will be from collecting port reports and picking up information packets from spies for the Admiralty. You can even try to set up your own spy networks in a few ports.


[[folder: Western Animation ]]

* ''WesternAnimation/TheSimpsons'':
** The episode [[Recap/TheSimpsonsS3E4BartTheMurderer "Bart the Murderer"]] featured a pizza van with satellite dishes on the roof listening in on the Simpsons when Bart is accused of murder. Marge notes it had been there a week and asks how long it takes to deliver a pizza. The van drives off and is replaced with another van with "'''F'''lowers '''B'''y '''I'''rene" on the side (provides the page image for VanInBlack).
** [[Recap/TheSimpsonsS22E12HomerTheFather "Homer the Father"]], a 2011 episode had a series of these, each of them having the initials of an American government agency but standing for something completely different (CIA = Chinese Intelligence Agency, FBI = French Bureau of Investigation, and ATF = ''Series/TheATeam'' of Finland).


[[folder: Real Life ]]

* [[UsefulNotes/TypesOfNavalShips Many navies do it:]]
** The USSR had at least ten types of these, such as the "Okean" and "Primorye" classes. Much of their commercial fishing fleet was, according to Wiki/TheOtherWiki, also engaged in spying ops on the side. These "trawlers" frequently were used to spy on US carrier battle groups as that was the greatest threat to the Soviet Navy. It helped that all those ships were state-owned anyway.
** In 2013 the UsefulNotes/RussiansWithRustingRockets commissioned the first Project 18280 [=ElInt=] ship, which will rely on low-signature "stealth" tech rather than being BeneathSuspicion, and will likely spy on the US "missile shield", which the Russians refuse to believe to be designed to stop Iranian missiles. HereWeGoAgain, Cold War!
** Also, the Soviets outdid everyone in regards to size. In order to spy on US missile tests in the Pacific, they commissioned one Project 1941 Titan ship, the SSV-33 ''Ural'', which used the stretched hull of the Project 1144 Orlan nuclear-powered heavy cruiser (a.k.a. the [[ReportingNames Kirov battlecruiser]]), and was the '''single biggest Soviet surface ship ever'''. SoMuchForStealth.
* Before WWII, a small Japanese fishing boat was actually mapping the coast of Southern California and northern Mexico, and listening to radio signals.
* USS ''Pueblo''. This was a rather less subtle type, rather than being disguised as a commonplace civilian vessel it was openly a US Navy vessel, but officially a "technical research ship" that was supposedly researching atmospheric phenomena. The lack of a disguise meant that such ships could be equipped with a more extensive array of electronic surveillance devices it also meant their true mission was pretty much an open secret.
** Another "technical research ship" was the USS ''Liberty'', infamously attacked by the Israeli military in an apparent case of mistaken identity during the [[UsefulNotes/ArabIsraeliConflict Six Day War]]. Whether Israel actually mistook the Liberty for a much smaller Egyptian ship as claimed remains deeply controversial to this day and quickly became fodder for conspiracy theories.
* In modern times submarines have largely taken over this role from surface vessels as they are more easily able to escape detection (obviously). This largely happened as a result of the USS ''Pueblo'' incident. This is known as ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and is one of the most useful purposes for submarines today.
* UsefulNotes/GenghisKhan and probably every other ruler in the world used merchants as spies from time to time. As they are among the few people who will be traveling, it makes sense.
* The [[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSF_Explorer Hughes Glomar Explorer]], built under the cover of being a mineral exploration ship, was actually used by the CIA in an attempt to salvage a sunken Soviet missile submarine. In a double example of this trope, the ship was shadowed during its mission by a Soviet "fishing trawler" of the kind mentioned above.
* North Korean intelligence agencies have used this lately to conduct intelligence ops near Japanese/South Korean territorial waters. One such incident in Japan to the formation of the JMSDF's Special Boarding Unit.