Extending from the west coast of Africa is Ras Nouadhibou, a small peninsula shared by Mauritania and Western Sahara. The east side of the peninsula belongs to Mauritania and is home to Nouadhibou, a city of nearly 100,000 residents and the second-largest settlement in the country. The region’s economic capital, Nouadhibou holds less illustrious titles as well: it is also home to the largest ship graveyard in the world.
Financial hardships led to authorities turning a blind eye to ship owners who offered bribes to dump used vessels in the harbor. After nearly three decades of this practice, Nouadhibou’s coastline is a unique landscape of over 300 rotting ships.
Nouadhibou was originally named Port-Étienne by French merchants who settled there shortly before World War I. The merchants valued the east-facing side of the peninsula as its calm waters offered protection to ships from the harsh waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Initially the local economy was based in fishing and trade, but the location on the peninsula proved ideal for shipping trade. Nouadhibou soon began to process and distribute the iron ore mined deep in Mauritania.
Like most frontier towns, lawlessness and money drove the early politics. In Nouadhibou, enterprising businessmen could get anything done if they had the money. Eventually shipping merchants discovered the city was willing to overlook the ecological hazards of dumping old vessels and forgive the proper dismantling process – for a fee.
The first ship to be abandoned in the bay was a French Navy cruiser, the Chasseloup-Laubat. It was later used as a floating stage in the 1920s.
As time passed the city’s financial hardships worsened and shipping community caught on. By the 1980s, the frequency with which abandoned ships were appearing in Nouadhibou’s bay increased dramatically.
There were several sources of the rotting ships. Mauritanians would purchase older ships from international shippers, hoping to run their own shipping business and compete.
But the older ships were not economically competitive. Maintenance costs and repairs were too much to bear; when they went bankrupt the ships were abandoned.
The numbers would continue to grow. Shippers from around the world were sending old ships on their final voyage to Mauritania.