Charles County officials joined tourism industry executives on a kayak tour of Mallows Bay last week to help drum up awareness of the bay as a tourist destination and to update them on the ongoing effort to obtain a federal marine sanctuary designation for the site.

County Administrator Mark Belton, who previously served as Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources secretary, and Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Director Eileen Minnick joined representatives from the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable on Monday, April 29, for the 90-minute tour of some of the more prominent shipwrecks that dot the bay, which is located along the Potomac River west of Nanjemoy.

ORR is a coalition of outdoor recreation trade associations and related organizations that lobbies for policies and legislation on behalf of the industry. In addition to members of the ORR board of directors, the tour also included representatives from the American Sportfishing Association, BoatUS, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which are all part of ORR.

Paul “Sonny” Orlando, the Northeast and Great Lakes Region coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, led the tour. Orlando serves as the point of contact between the public and NOAA on the county’s efforts to designate an 18-square-mile area around Mallows Bay as the nation’s first inshore National Marine Sanctuary.

Orlando said that NOAA works closely with ORR to help raise awareness of the recreational value of the nation’s aquatic sanctuaries.

“It’s a natural fit,” Orlando said. “Sanctuaries are some of the most sought after places for recreation.”

The other goal of the tour was to provide the representatives with what Orlando called “a hands-on, in-water opportunity” to demonstrate the potential for a new marine sanctuary in the Potomac River and to spotlight the value of the partnerships that have been responsible for restoring and preserving the river for both fishing and tourism.

Representatives from some of those partners, including the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Chesapeake Conservancy and Atlantic Kayak, which supplied the kayaks, were also along for the tour.

The waters around Mallows Bay contain the wrecks of over 200 ships dating from the Civil War, but is perhaps most famous for being the home of the “ghost fleet” of over 100 wooden merchant steamships that were built during World War I and subsequently scuttled in the bay in 1925. The wrecks, many of which serve as nesting grounds for birds, are a popular tourist destination.

A new audio tour of the wrecks is in the final stages of preparation, keyed to small, numbered buoys anchored alongside key locations. Orlando said that the tour will soon be available for download from the web, and eventually as a dedicated mobile app.

According to NOAA, the 18-square-mile site includes the wrecks of 118 of the merchant steamships along with Native American heritage sites and the remains of historic fisheries operations.

In 2017, the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend designating the area for preservation as a federal marine sanctuary.

NOAA had originally sought to designate an area of 52 square miles for the sanctuary, but several local organizations expressed concern that the larger sanctuary could adversely affect defense-related activities at Naval Support Facility Indian Head.

Across the Potomac, King George County in Virginia has previously expressed opposition to establishing the sanctuary, arguing that it would restrict over-water ballistics testing at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren.

Orlando said that the tour focused on the history and heritage of the site, as well as the ins and outs of the sanctuary designation process.

“We have done a number of these tours before, so we were really happy to take them out there,” said Orlando, whose role includes being the public face of the marine sanctuary process in the region. “A good half of the discussion was led by all the other partners who were there.”

According to Orlando, the tour was “eye-opening” for many of the ORR members, for whom it was their first time kayaking in the area.

“It’s quiet, serene and just 30 minutes down from Washington, D.C.,” Orlando said. “There is this special nature that comes over you.”

Jessica Wahl, ORR’s executive director, agreed with Orlando.

“It was really cool,” she said. “I kayak a lot, so for me it’s just nice to get out there. But it’s amazing to think how close it is to D.C. and [also] what a special place it is for people who aren’t as interested in kayaking. From a historical perspective and an environmental education perspective, it has a lot to offer.”

Wahl said that the sanctuary designation could also help improve access for students who are studying history and marine biology.

“I think those connections could be really important and I think a marine sanctuary could really help heighten that,” she said.

“I think everyone’s feeling good about [the process of obtaining the federal sanctuary designation], but ... they didn’t give us any timeline,” Wahl said. “It’s sounding like things are going smoothly and they’re crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. That’s stuff that takes a lot of time.”

Orlando explained that NOAA is in the final stages of negotiation with the state government to hammer out how the site will be managed jointly by the county, state and federal governments.

“Both sides have been doing an awful lot of work to bring this across the finish line in very short order,” Orlando said. “I believe in my heart that we’re getting very close.”

Once the management agreement has been worked out, Orlando explained, the plan must be reviewed by Congress and the governor’s office, and also opened for public comment.

Having a national marine sanctuary so close to Washington, D.C., will be a boon to Charles County and the region, Orlando believes.

“You now have the potential for this national park equivalent right there in your backyard on the Potomac River, and it’s really saying to people, ‘Come on out here, be part of this, enjoy it, experience it, and we’re giving you all kinds of ways to make that happen,’” Orlando said.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a community of partners that have worked so hard to maintain the momentum and fulfill the promise of the newest marine sanctuary in the NOAA system,” Orlando added. “If I could say anything to them, I would say, ‘Thank you.’”

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews