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 romance between spies.
Supertrope of Van in Black.
See also Black Helicopter.
Anime and Manga
- Wa Ga Na Wa Umishi: Disguised as a fishing boat. Allegedly from North Korea.
- In G.I. Joe Special Missions #1, the Joes stage a mission on a fake fishing trawler.
- The All Guardsmen Party was once tasked with purchasing a mission ship to use during their work for the Emperor's Most Holy Inquisition. The result was the free trader Occurrence Border, an Alleged Spaceship - or rather half of a spaceship, the front fell off at some point - that has all manner of lethal quirks to it, but functions perfectly as a spy ship, because no one who looks at it would conclude that the Inquisition would use such a deathtrap to deploy its agents.
- As a Long Runner series of movies about spies, James Bond films of course have several examples:
- An odd variation in The Man with the Golden Gun. 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.
- For Your Eyes Only has one accidentally fish up a Sea Mine and sink.
- This goes back to Dr. No: 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 Thunderball. The version that appears on The Remake Never Say Never Again even adds a pretty advanced secret communications room.
- The Final Countdown 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.
- The Wackiest Ship in the Army (and the subsequent Recycled: The Series) 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.
- Honor Harrington 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 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 Boats, either 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 In-Universe). The one time it happens, the Havenite warship being tailed 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 heavily armed privateer, and the ensuing battle 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.
- Star Wars Legends:
- At one point in The Thrawn Trilogy, 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). 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 The Oregon Files is a ship with a nearly derelict appearance that serves as a home base for its crew of former intelligence and special operations operatives.
- In Dale Brown's Shadows Of Steel, a US commando unit operates out of one, sabotaging Iranian operations in the Persian Gulf. Its destruction and the capture of all on board kick the plot off.
- In Cryptonomicon, Detachment 2702 use a decrepit old boat and, ahem, "Tactical Negro Impersonation", to provide a cover story for how the Allies managed to locate a Milchcow - a resupply U-boat - when said submarines very rarely transmit anything, and thus cannot plausibly be located via Radio Direction Finding. The mission is... not an unqualified success.
- Doctor Who: "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 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.
- The Emmy-winning two-part episode "Ship of Spies" from Season 1 of Get Smart. Agents 86 and 99 search for stolen plans on a freighter full of spies.
- Free Traders can sometimes do this in Traveller.
- The second mission of Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War 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 Star Wars: The Old Republic 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 Command & Conquer: Generals, as it can be disguised as any vehicle (allied, hostile, or one of the neutrals that are there to be turned into Action Bombs 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 Sunless Sea. 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.
- The Simpsons:
- The episode "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 "Flowers By Irene" on the side (provides the page image for Van in Black).
- "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 = The A-Team of Finland).
- 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 The Other Wiki, 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 Russians with Rusting Rockets commissioned the first Project 18280 ElInt ship, which will rely on low-signature "stealth" tech rather than being Beneath Suspicion, and will likely spy on the US "missile shield", which the Russians refuse to believe to be designed to stop Iranian missiles. Here We Go Again!, 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 Kirov battlecruiser), and was the single biggest Soviet surface ship ever. So Much for Stealth.
- Many spy ships aren't stealthy at all. Some just hang at the edge of territorial waters where nobody can legally tell them to move and just watch what they can (which, with the right sensors, is surprisingly a lot). For example Norway's Marjata note looks like Dorito wearing a hat, but it's job is to spy on fleet movements in Russian territorial waters, which can quite easily do thanks to it's advanced surveillance equipment. The Russians always know it's there but it's not like they can just behind something.
- Before WWII, a small Japanese fishing boat was actually mapping the coast of Southern California and northern Mexico, and listening to radio signals. On the US side was the USS Gold Star which was keeping an eye on the developing Japanese navy.
- 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 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.
- Genghis Khan 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 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.