Largest Ship Graveyard in the World: Nouadhibou, Mauritania

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.

Map of Mauritania



NouadhibouNouadhibou 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.

Street in Nouadhibou

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.

NouadhibouThe 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.


Why Nouadhibou?

NouadhibouThere 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.

As of mid-2013, the numbers continue to grow. Shippers from around the world are still sending old ships on their final voyage to Mauritania.

It didn’t take too long for entrepreneurial Mauritanians to start salvage services.

For a small fee they would take old ships from international shippers and dispose of them – by coming back to Mauritania and dumping them in Nouadhibou, of course.


The United Malika

The United Malika

The most famous (if not most-photographed) wreck of the Nouadhibou coastline is the United Malika, a nearly 400-foot reefer vessel (pictured).

Nouadhibou-United-Malika-1United Malika ran aground on August 4th, 2003. All seventeen members of the crew survived and were rescued by the Mauritanian Navy.

This massive ship was abandoned near the base of the peninsula by Cap Blanc (see on map).

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)



NouadhibouWhile there have been numerous proposals to help Mauritania clean up the ships, none have been fully realized.

And while some are calling to clean up the wrecks, there are many positive side effects from the mass abandonment.

The collection of ships created artificial reefs for fish and other wildlife, stimulating a local fishing industry that had previously been decimated from years of over-fishing in the area.

NouadhibouThe metal hulls have been breeding grounds for fish, replenishing the local supply. Birds have settled on the largely-unmolested offshore barges, and in some cases complete ecosystems have taken over the wrecks.

The graveyard is a large source of income for many inhabitants of Nouadhibou as well, who look to the ships as a source of income. Local companies pay to salvage anything of value from the vessels.

Mechanics were hired to remove parts of engines and electricians to retrieve repairable electronic equipment.

Plumbers were employed to recover valuable metal piping. Security guards are paid to guard the salvage vessels from theft or vandalism.

NouadhibouUnfortunately there is little incentive for any participants to put a stop to the practice; with the business being so lucrative for Nouadhibou politicians and local workers, it has become a profitable industry for an area with little other means to monetize resources or labor.

Absent change instigated by an outsider, the bay of Nouadhibou is likely to remain home to the largest ship graveyard in the world for decades to come.

Map it!


Photos courtesy Dave Thompson, Jamie Muncee, Muhammad M., Fredrik Arnell, Andrei Raskov, and Wikipedia Commons



  1. More of what man has left behind- Amazing story (of course) 🙂 Great images; such a haunting place!

  2. als je goed kijkt liggen er hektrawlers uit scheveningen weg te rotten daar dat gaat wel aan mn hart omdat ik op deze schepen gevaren hebt voor de visserij 7 stuks liggen daar ze waren 13 of 14 jaar oud

    • James, I’d venture a guess it’s a combination of the poor quality of oxidized material combined with a lack of resources in the area to collect and refine the material. If nothing else those factors make it cost prohibitive.

      That’s not to speak of the pollutants & mess of proper disposal. Many of these vessels are also storage tanks for a cesspool of left over fuel, oil, and who knows what else. None of it was properly disposed of, so any attempt to retrieve the metal would likely also involve some sort of costly and exhaustive process which would require the proper disposal of all the waste as well.

  3. I have just been in Nouadhibou to visit the shipwrecks, but there are only two ships left. A Indian businessman brought the steel of all the ships to India and surely made a good deal…thats what the locals told us…have a look at google earth, they are gone. Sometimes the rising prices for resources clean up a mess 🙂

    • Really? That’s good news! I just checked but I still see plenty of ships there, Google Earth might not be updated yet over here for us. But if true, I’m glad to hear there is progress toward a resolution. Thanks for stopping by Henrik, do you have any photos you’d like to share of what you saw? 🙂

      • try with google maps, there are only a few shipwrecks left. We made no photos as there were no shipwrecks, but the harbour with hundreds of small fisher boats is worth a visit and of course the longest train in the world leaving Nouadhibou in the afternoon and arriving the next day in Zouerate, the mining town in the desert.

  4. A few years ago (might have been in 1997?) I wanted to visit but the ships have been towed away to sea.
    Paid by Europe as aid.
    The mail conversation is lost but it was an English university taking the lead in this and they told me the cleaning was going very fast.

    Just a few tugboats towing the ships to sea, sink them and next, most of them must have been full of asbestos and other stuff.
    I also visited the ships in Amsterdam: Otopan and Sandrien, both chemical hazard and full of crudeoil and the sandrien was leaking badly at the engine, if the crew would have stopped the pumps it would have become a major oil disaster in the harbour. The machine room was full of asbestos chips, might kill me later…

    I found this pdf below but not sure, selling the ships to an Indian is unlikely as it is more rust than metal, commodity cost would be to high.

    1998 – CNROP – Nouadhibou Mauritania, 7-13 December. Resource Assessment Workshop, Co-editor of final FAO report and public presentation of the Workshop key recommendations to Fisheries Minister

    • Thanks for the information Martin, I should probably provide some updates to this story as I don’t doubt there has been changes over the years. By the way, the pdf you referred to did not attach. If you want feel free to email it to me:

      I’m curious to know more about these two ships in Amsterdam, the Otopan and Sandrien. What else can you tell me about them?

      Thanks for the comment!

      • As someone who lived and grew up in that part of the world for over 15 years its always of interest to see how difficult it is for someone who doesn’t live there, like I don’t anymore, to get valid updated info or a grip on what’s going on from anywhere in Africa it seems. That can’t be accidental as it works for most places there and it shouldn’t be this difficult. Yet there it is.

        I will suggest that they guy who spoke with locals is more accurate than some English university would be.That the guy who used the English University (he didn’t name) as his sources, and then says the story of Indian from locals is unlikely, only proves how full of it he is. Look at what he says he never even went there.

        About a year ago or so I read an account of how the UN started to control all of its internet traffic from Africa. That would mean the UN controls internet traffic from Africa period. I’m using the way internet traffic was ten years ago as a gauge to how it is now. 10 years ago it was common to see African people from many nations online. Today we rarely if ever see any. That’s just an observation. You have to get into all kinds of African history to understand why the UN has never had Africa’s best interests in mind but I wont get into all that now..

        The west African coast line is the longest most pristine in the world… .I managed to travel through most of Africa during my tenure there and flying over that area in a cessna was the strangest and most bizarre sight that had ever greeted my eyes.

  5. I was in Nouadibou in 1974-75 with an oil drilling co. We had our camp next to the airport and 2 oil rigs out in the desert. The locals who worked for us would steal anything that wasn’t Nailed down. The country was then run by the army and we had to operate by paying bribes to the local commander any time he desired. When we would arrive for our 6 week on, they would take our cameras, radio’s, tape players and whatever else they wanted to take a n d would give us a receipt, then when we’d fly out f o r our 2 week break, we would give them our receipt for our stuff that they took from us and they would just look at you like you were stupid to think that you were going to get your stuff back and you had no recourse. When we moved our operations to Niger, they took one of our C130s hostage and wanted us to pay them about 11 million dollars in US greenbacks to get our plane released. They finally settled on $200,000=and we had the cash flown in the next day from our headquarters in NY and handed it to the local army commander and got our plane released. Thank God I never had to go back to Mauritania again. Niger was just as bad as far as corrupt government. Spent a tear and a half in that region and it was a real experience. Thank God I live in the United States.

    • Dear Merry, I don’t get your point. This article is about shipwrecks and not about your personal experience during your time in Mauritania…btw we had a fantastic time in Mauritania where people invited us in their homes, showed us around and even gave us some presents.

    • Dear Merry,

      I was interested to read your post, though it did not relate to the shipwrecks. I landed in Nouadibou in 1971 from a small ship I boarded in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, after a six day voyage. They offloaded us from the ship onto a garbage scow with no keel, and towed us over on a wild, skewing and bobbing ride, to a concrete pier into which our boat slammed, and was held with ropes til we could scramble off onto the pier. Our wee group of 5 was marched by Franco’s troops (the country was then Spanish Sahara) to the local constabulary, where we were searched and questioned, then given back our US passports with a visa, after paying a small bribe. I say this as memory serves I’ll, but we were young backpacking hippies without much in funds. I was 18, female, blonde, and fresh out of high school, traveling with two men in their early 20’s. I remember Nouadibou as a tiny outpost, but we were there to get on the coal train out to the Sahara, from which we had been told we could intersect with the major route through the dessert traveled by trucks. We planned to ride on top of supply trucks to Dakar. This we did. We travelled safely through the Sahara for 5 days, sleeping in the homes of oasis dwellers and being fed by them. An unforgettable experience, and one that stands out for my memories of the many kindnessnesses shown to us, as strangers traveling. Thanks so much for your post! It is a strange and fascinating place.

      JJR, Delaware, USA

  6. Great blog. My 94 year old father was stationed in Port Etienne in 1943-1944 when it was an RAF Coastal Command base for Short Sunderlands who patrolled the Atlantic hunting for U-boats.

  7. I was in Nouadhibou, in November 1996.
    There were lots of ships, rusty and wrecked.
    At the time, I assumed they were all ship wrecks, only later learned it was because of ship salvaging, that these were there.
    Must dig out my old photos, one day.

  8. As of December 2018, a lot of the ships have been removed. They’re being sold off and the buyers are having them torn down for scrap. My understanding is that this is due to a major government initiative that seems to be trying to actually fix the problem.

    Of course, when we were there, rusted and abandoned de-construction equipment sat on the beach – itself needing to be salvaged and cleaned up. It’s a slow process.

    There might still be some that you can visit, but it’s an ever-changing situation at this point and should be checked in real time with local guides.

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