Humankind’s ability to alter the world around them is unparalleled. Women and men throughout time have bent the environment around them to their will, and even in the pursuit of goals far removed from that environment, irrevocably changed it.
We’re familiar with many of the negative effects of mankind’s power over the natural world, but sometimes, the positive ones escape notice.
Mallows Bay, located in Charles County, Maryland, is one such place. Filled with the remains of over 100 wooden, flat-bottomed steamships from World War I, this 18-square-mile wetland and shoreline park is the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere.
During the height of American involvement in WWI, the U.S. government ordered the construction of 1,000 of these boats, designed to bolster traditional freight ships that were vulnerable to German U-boats. Only 118 of these boats were ever produced before the end of the war, and not one saw combat.
With the conclusion of WWI, technology sped past the once top-of-the-line freight boats, and they were of no further use to the U.S. government—instead, they were transported to the Potomac River, where they were stripped for scrap metal and abandoned to the elements of Mallows Bay.
What the Navy couldn’t have known was that they were inadvertently creating man-made reefs as the abandoned boats slowly sunk into the bay over the decades.
Today, wildlife teems among the wrecks of these former engines of war. White perch, striped bass, channel catfish and blue crab make their homes among the shelter of the wrecks, and eagles, ospreys, turtles, and otters drawn to the rich world beneath the surface now circle the skies and ply the waters above.
Nominated in 2014, Mallows Bay was formally enshrined as a National Marine Sanctuary on September 3, 2019, joining 14 other such sites across the U.S., including Monterey Bay in California, Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts, and Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mallows Bay must be seen to be believed. Remnants of ships rise from the surface and are visible just beneath—ghostly, yet alive with marine life. Fortunately, we can see it. The public is welcome to boat, kayak, fish, hike, birdwatch and take in the wonder of this convergence of humanity and nature.
To learn more about the National Aquarium’s efforts to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore and beyond, visit aqua.org/conserve.