Maritime Heritage

The greatest relics representing America's past as a seafaring nation lie at the bottom of the sea and lakes in our national marine sanctuaries. NOAA's national marine sanctuaries protect prehistoric sites, shipwrecks, and naval battlefields: places to explore, discover, and appreciate our country's maritime cultural heritage. This heritage is a legacy of thousands of years of settlement, exploration, immigration, harvesting the bounty of the seas and creating coastal communities and maritime traditions. Through the study, protection and promotion of this diverse legacy, sanctuaries help Americans learn more about our past.

drawing of the clipper ship great republic at sea

I'm Bound Away: Five Hundred Years of Watercraft In and Around Sanctuaries

Our long maritime history is reflected in the hundreds of different kinds of boats, from small one-person kayaks to the large ocean-going clippers that have plied our streams, rivers, lakes, and ocean, including in many places now protected as national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments.

Proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary & The Oldest Confirmed Shipwreck

In order to protect historically significant shipwrecks and maritime heritage resources, NOAA proposed the designation of a national marine sanctuary in eastern Lake Ontario in April 2019. The area being considered for designation includes 1,700 square miles of lake waters and bottomlands adjacent to New York State. It contains 21 known shipwrecks and one military aircraft representing events spanning over 200 years of United States history. The area also contains the HMS Ontario, which is both the oldest confirmed shipwreck in the United States and the only fully intact British warship discovered in the Great Lakes. Earlier this year, NOAA selected a pre-designation Sanctuary Advisory Council for Lake Ontario, which will provide advice and a local point of view to NOAA during the designation process.

Two exposed wrecks

Mallows Bay-Potomac River: Preserving the "Ghost Fleet"

In July 2019, NOAA designated the first new national marine sanctuary in nearly two decades. Located south of Washington, D.C., the sanctuary protects the remnants of more than 100 World War I-era wooden steamships, known as the "Ghost Fleet," as well as other cultural maritime heritage dating back more than 12,000 years.

School of fish swim over a wreck with diver in the background

Honoring America's World War II Battlefield: Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

In 1973, a scientific team from Duke University discovered the site of the ironclad USS Monitor, a warship that played a central role in the Battle of Hampton Roads during the Civil War. In 1975, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was designated off the coast of North Carolina. It is the oldest national marine sanctuary in the United States. In 2016, NOAA proposed a boundary expansion for the sanctuary to include additional historic shipwreck sites from the Battle of the Atlantic, one of the only World War II battles to occur in American waters. Watch this video to learn more about protecting America's World War II battlefields.

Diver over a wreck

Exploring and Experiencing Historic Preservation and Maritime Heritage

May 2020 was National Historic Preservation Month, but recognizing the importance of our nation's historical events is important every month. There are countless opportunities to virtually explore all the beautiful and historically rich national marine sanctuaries across the country, including a video tour of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, an informational video about the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, and this report about the robust history of the National Marine Sanctuary System. You can virtually dive into our sanctuaries, including a 360° video tour of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

A long range aku fishing sampan motors to sea with Diamondhead in the background

Long-Vanished Boats Provide Window into Japanese Heritage in the Hawaiian Islands

In 1992, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was designated. The waters around the sanctuary hold a wide variety of different maritime vessels, including Polynesian voyaging canoes, whales, and steamships. In the early 1900s, the tuna fishing industry brought many Japanese migrants to Hawaii, and with them, sampans--small, simple skiffs used to catch ahi and aku tuna. Large numbers of sampans were destroyed during World War II, greatly impacting the fishing industry.