The city of Noaudhibou is on the Atlantic west coast of Africa in the country of Mauritania. It boasts the world’s largest ship graveyard, with 300 vessels lying in its harbor.

While the city has a significant economy due to its fishing industry and iron ore processing, it is relatively poor.

Read on to learn about the African port city of Nouadhibou, home to Africa’s largest ship graveyard.

Where is Nouadhibou?

Nouadhibou, Mauritania is a port city located on a 65 km peninsula called Ras Nouadhibou, or Cap Blanc, shared by West Sahara and Mauritania. The city is a few kilometers away from the Morocco-Mauritania border on the Atlantic Coast of Western Africa.

Nouadhibou is the second-largest city in Mauritania and serves as an important commercial center for the country. Around 118,000 people live in the city, while over 140,000 live in the larger metropolitan area. The city has four major areas: Keran, the main town center built in 1958; the community of Cansado is in the south; Numerowatt, where most of the population lives in the North, and a dormitory town for the harbor workers a few kilometers south of the city near the Bay of Nouadhibou.

Nouaibou’s attractions include its markets, the largest ship graveyard in Africa, Mediterranean monk seals, and the Table Remarquable, a rustic mountain facing the sea. Noaudhbiou has an international airport, and Banc d’Arguin National Park is nearby, which is considered a UNESCO Heritage Site.

The average annual temperature of Nouadhibou is 71 degrees Fahrenheit and classified as having a desert climate, receiving very little rainfall throughout the year. The city does not experience extreme heat levels that characterize much of the Northwest Africa region due to its location on the coast.

Elghassem Ould Bellali is the current mayor of the city, elected on October 15, 2018.


The town was created as a small fishing port, changing hands from the Portuguese, the Dutch, and eventually to the French. In 1907, Ernest Roume, the governor-general of French West Africa, named the town Port-Etienne after Eugene Etienne, the former French Minister of the Colonies.

The town’s name was officially changed in 1960 to Nouadhibou, meaning “Place of the Jackal,” after Mauritania gained its independence. The city was named after the jackals that would visit the area to drink from its wells.

In 1966, Port Wharf was built in the fishing harbor to accommodate up to 50,000 tons. In 1977, the port was further extended and raised its capacity to 320,000 tons. The lengthening of the pier continued throughout the 21st century to attract larger foreign vessels.

An Aerobee rocket was launched in the city in June 1972 for solar research.

Since 2006, the city has served as a departure point for many Africans en route to the Canary Islands. This is a dangerous route used by migrants to reach the European continent that became popular when stricter emigration controls instated on Morocco and Spanish enclaves in 2005.

In 2017 the region’s largest hospital, Nouadhibou Regional Hospital, was built.

Nouadhibou’s Economy

The city is a major trading center for various goods, much of which comes from inland, such as jewelry, ceramic art, and even Saharan meteorites.

The city has long been a significant transit center for international transport. It was used by the Latecoere air transport network in the early 20th century, acting as a stopover for the network of mail and passengers for Africa and overseas colonies. Many Europeans stayed in the city during this period, such as famed French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Mauritania’s only railway line is near the Nouadhibou harbor and mostly carries iron ore from the mining areas near Fdreik and Zouerat, located further inland. The freight trains that travel on these railway lines can be as long as 3 kilometers, considered among the world’s longest. The city is connected to the Coastal Motorway RN2 to Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott. The highway connects it to the Moroccan border.

Though the city’s major economic activity is fishing, the port city’s income mainly comes from iron ore processing and exporting. Despite the port city’s lucrative iron and fishing industries, the city and its population are impoverished, as there is minimal economic opportunity throughout the country. Of Mauritania’s 4.3 million people, 42 percent live in poverty.

Throughout the 20th century, there has been a growing incentive for the port city to shift its central economic focus from iron ore processing to fishing. Countries like China have become less reliant on Mauritanian iron ore.

However, the country’s localized fishing industry has been hampered for decades by agreements between the Mauritanian government and foreign fishing companies, which are allowed to fish in Mauritania’s waters for a fee. In 2013 the government created a “free zone” to increase competition and attract more foreign fishermen. It also made improvements to the port itself so it could fully accommodate larger foreign vessels.

The local fisherman sees no money from these agreements and instead only catches significantly less fish. With primitive equipment and boats, fishers must go out for dangerous voyages. They had to go farther and longer into the Atlantic Ocean to catch sustainable amounts of fish, with hundreds of fishers dying in the process.

Mauritania’s Ship Graveyard

Noaudhibou’s port includes the world’s largest ship graveyard, containing over 300 ships. These rusting, abandoned vessels include cargo ships, fishing boats, and small naval cruisers. Nouadhibou’s ship graveyard has increased in ships over time due to corrupt officials accepting bribes from boat owners from all over the world. An underground market was created in the harbor. Mauritanians offer a fee to international shippers to dispose of their vessels in the port.

These boat owners sought to dump their ships in the harbor without properly disassembling them or following environmental regulations, often costly. This practice increased dramatically throughout the 1980s.

Some of these ships also came from Mauritanians buying vessels from international shipping companies but were ultimately unable to compete and eventually went bankrupt and were forced to dump their vessels. One of the most famous wrecks on the city’s coast is the United Milika. The 400-foot ship ran aground in 2003, with the Mauritanian Navy rescuing all seventeen crew members.

While many consider Nouadhibou’s abandoned shipyard as environmentally hazardous, others said these became artificial reefs for marine life and boosted the city’s fishing industry. Many throughout the city have looked to the ships themselves as sources of income – many of the vessels have been salvaged for anything of value.


We have explored many different aspects of the African port city of Nouadhbiou.

Let’s go over the central components.

  • Nouadhbiou is a port city located on the coast of Mauritania,
  • Around 118,000 people live in Nouadhibou, making it the second-largest city in the country
  • The city has a sizeable economy based on fishing and iron ore processing, though the population has remained relatively poor.
  • The city’s freight trains that bring in iron ore from inland can be as long as 3 kilometers, considered among the world’s longest.
  • The city has served as a dangerous departure point for many African migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands since 2006.
  • The city is home to the world’s largest ship graveyard, which has over 300 broken-down vessels in its harbor.
  • This ship graveyard has showcased the city’s poverty and corruption. These vessels have been dumped into the harbor to avoid paying hefty dismantling fees.

While Nouadhibou may not be a premier tourist attraction anytime soon, its ship graveyard has made the city a shining example of both poverty and corruption in Africa.

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