In the past 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.
Frontier town, 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.
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.
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.
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.
After nearly three decades of this practice, Nouadhibou’s coastline is a unique landscape of over 300 rotting ships.
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.