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See the Two Ship Graveyards That May Become New Marine Sanctuaries

The first marine sanctuaries approved by NOAA in 15 years are home to a plethora of shipwrecks

(Donald Shomette)
smithsonian.com

The first two marine sanctuaries in 15 years will likely be in Lake Michigan and in the Chesapeake Bay.

President Barack Obama announced this week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had approved nominations for Mallows Bay in the Chesapeake and an 875-square-mile part of Lake Michigan off the coast of Wisconsin to become national marine sanctuaries.

Both have unique ecological and archaeological significanceand both sites are home to a large number of shipwrecks. Mallows Bay has the largest assemblage of World War I-era ships in the world, known as the "ghost fleet", in addition to ships dating from the Civil War and earlier.

The proposed Lake Michigan site, starting north of Milwaukee and extending up the "thumb" of the peninsula, is home to 39 known shipwrecks, state historian John Broihahn says, ranging from ships built in the 1830s to 1918.

In Mallows Bay, the majority of the ships were intentionally scuttled after the brand-new U.S. Shipping Board was commissioned to build a fleet during World War I and chose to build as many wooden ships as cheaply as possible.

"They were throwaways," says historian and underwater archaeologist Donald Shomette, who literally wrote the book on Mallows Bay. "They weren't going for quality." That decision meant that many of the boats were never actually used in World War I and that nobody wanted them afterwards, except for scrap, which is how they ended up in the bay.

The designation as marine sanctuaries doesn't necessarily mean an end to research or recreation—and Broihahn and Shomette both believe that having federal recognition will improve the sites.

In some ways, however, they're racing against time. In Maryland, rising seas threaten to submerge the Mallows Bay ghost fleet entirely. And in Lake Michigan, invading zebra and quagga mussels have filtered the water so that the shipwrecks are much more visible than before, but Broihahn says there is anecdotal evidence that the invasive molluscs are also damaging some of the historic wrecks.

The good news, he says, is that the growth of water tourism combined with the new NOAA designation has helped bring awareness to the site. "These wrecks really aren't invisible anymore," he says.

For the Birds

The wreck of the Benzonia is now becoming a breeding ground for birds. Historian Donald Shomette visited this wreck a few years ago. “I had to watch where I was stepping so I didn't step on eggs,” he says.

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