Drones give better view of the 'Ghost Fleet'

Marine Corps Base Quantico is one of the most famous military bases in the world. The base covers 58,000 acres in Prince William County, Virginia. The U.S. Marine Corps’ Combat Development Command, which designs and develops strategies for U.S. Marine units, is based at Quantico. The FBI Academy, the main research and training facility for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is also located at the base. So is the main training facility for the Drug Enforcement Administration. 

But what most people don’t know is that just across the Potomac River from the base is a famous piece of American history. And researchers at the Duke Marine lab had to get the approval of the Marines at Quantico to fly drones to study this lost piece of history. This section of the Potomac River near the base happens to be restricted air space. 

This section of the Potomac, carving out a secluded cove from the tall, forested bluffs of the river, is called Mallows Bay. The fishing is good here and Bald eagles nest nearby. 

The Bay is also home to the “Ghost Fleet,” the largest collection of sunken warships in the Western Hemisphere. 

Some of the ships are visible from the river’s edge, but many, many more are only visible from the air. It's only from the air that the true extent of the ghost fleet can be seen. Which is why the National Park Service hired the Duke Marine Lab to use its drones for an aerial survey. 

Don Shomette, a maritime historian and underwater archeologist, has done plenty of research on the area. He says most of the wrecks date back to the days just before the U.S. entered World War I. The government created the Shipping Board in April 1917, which was charged with building 1,000 wooded steamships to help supply our European allies. The wood design was chosen because it was cheaper than steel and the ships could be built faster than German ships could sink them. 

The plan turned the nation into a shipbuilding powerhouse. However, only 134 ships were completed by October 1918, and Germany surrendered one month later. Eventually, 264 ships were finished. Roughly 200 actually crossed the Atlantic at some point, mostly used for training purposes. However the wooden design and coal-fired engines were soon deemed obsolete. The diesel-powered ship was taking over. 

A private company bought the fleet, with plans to salvage the metal parts and sink the hulls. But those plans were lost in the fury of World War II. Eventually, as the war was ending, the ships were simply abandoned in the bay. They’ve been left undisturbed. 

Researchers say it’s an odd sight as seen from the shore or from a canoe. Small clusters of vegetation dot the bay, as if tiny mounds of dirt and vegetation have sprung from the water. But as you get closer, the hunks of decaying wood and large iron nails can be seen. If you look just below the surface, outlines of ships are visible. It is eerie, but it is also a navigation nightmare, because the wreckage lies just inches below the surface. As the photos show, many of the ships above the surface have become reefs and small islands. In most cases, researchers say each ship has become a mini-ecosystem. The mile-long bay has become a unique wildlife refuge. 

That natural progression—mother-nature reclaiming what humans built—is part of the reason why Mallows Bay has been nominated to become a National Marine Sanctuary. The marine lab’s research will be part of the nomination process. 

Shomette is the author of a book entitled The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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