Joel Dunn head shot square
Joel Dunn MEM'04

It took five years of planning, dozens of negotiations, hundreds of meetings, briefings and community events, and an inexhaustible supply of coffee and optimism for Joel Dunn to realize his dream of seeing Mallows Bay designated as a national marine sanctuary.

And it was worth every bit of the hassle, he says.

“We were able to protect one of the most amazing sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and bring about the creation of the first U.S. national marine sanctuary in nearly 20 years, with bipartisan support. To say I’m thrilled would be an understatement,” said Dunn, a 2004 Master of Environmental Management graduate of the Nicholas School and co-founder of The Chesapeake Conservancy, an Annapolis-based environmental nonprofit.

Over the last 15 years, Dunn and his team at the Chesapeake Conservancy have worked with other NGOs, government agencies and community stakeholders across the Chesapeake watershed to create or expand many national monuments, forests, parks and trails, including Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, Chesapeake National Historic Trail and Fort Monroe National Monument. They’ve also helped create 194 public access sites that give people new opportunities to experience the natural wonders of the bay and its environs.

But nothing quite compares to Mallows Bay.

The bay, which today forms the heart of the 18-square-mile Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, sits on the Maryland shore of the Potomac barely 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., and used to be Calvin Coolidge’s favorite place for duck hunting.

It’s home to the largest – and possibly most photogenic – collection of shipwrecks in the western hemisphere. More than 200 ships, dating back through three centuries of American naval history, lie on the riverbed after being retired from service, stripped of their metal and scuttled there.

Many of wrecks have become reefs for wildlife, attracting species popular with recreational fishermen, like striped bass, as well as rare ones like the long-nosed gar. Dozens of bird species, including ospreys, bald eagles, cormorants and great blue herons, nest in the towering cedars and ash trees lining the bay or, like Coolidge, hunt in its marshes.

Hiking trails thread through its woods and along its shorelines; a water trail weaves through the wrecks, giving kayakers unparalleled views of the wildlife there.

Indigenous sites surrounding the bay date back 12,000 years and may have been places of significance to the Piscataway Conoy Indians and other ancient tribes.

It’s a kayaker’s, historian’s and naturalist’s dream, and a haven for photographers who flock to the site to capture images of the wildlife and the wrecks, known popularly as the Mallows Bay Ghost Fleet because they rise like graveyard spirits out of the water and sink eerily back beneath it with the tides.