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Mallows Bay: An Incidental Paradise

The largest ghost fleet in the Western Hemisphere lies only 80 miles from the National Aquarium.

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Mallows Bay, located in Charles County, Maryland, is a relic of America’s wartime resiliency that has become a haven for coastal species—and now, it’s being recognized as a National Marine Sanctuary. 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.

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