Peter Turcik still remembers the shot.
Leaning forward in his kayak, holding his camera still, he snapped a vertical picture of the sunken ship, with the setting sun as its glistening background.
“I actually laid down in the kayak to get down to the water level so that I’d get the composition that I wanted,” he said. “And I remember it was pretty buggy out. So I was trying to hold still, while flies bit in my legs.”
That was in August 2016 in Mallows Bay, an alcove in the Potomac River known for its array of sunken “ghost ships,” including vessels hurriedly constructed for merchant shipping in World War I, then scuttled after the war.
Now, Turcik’s photograph will star on a U.S. postage stamp as part of a series on National Marine Sanctuaries.
The stamp debuts Aug. 5, and it’s an exciting moment for Turcik, an avid photographer and outdoorsman who lives beside Glebe Creek in Edgewater.
“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how to react.”
The print run for the National Marine Sanctuaries stamps, which are offered as a set of 16, is 38 million stamps, said David Rupert, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. They are “Forever” stamps, which have the same value — regardless of price increases — as a regular first-class mail stamp. One set costs $9.60.
The idea for the set of stamps was selected by the USPS Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which considers as many as 30,000 possible subjects each year, Rupert said.
Once the idea was finalized, art directors searched for photos that would best show the sanctuaries, and Turcik’s caught their eye, Rupert said.
“His featured work is a miniature masterpiece, featured on millions on stamps,” he wrote in a statement.
Mallows Bay was named a National Marine Sanctuary in 2019, after a yearslong campaign from locals smitten with the waterway’s vibrant history and the diverse habitats embedded in maritime wreckage. The designation faced some resistance from watermen, who worried it would impact fishing rights. But such activities have remained under Maryland’s control.
The bay is one of only 15 sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including in the Florida Keys and along Washington’s Olympic Coast. Several more have been proposed, including one in Lake Ontario.
Joining NOAA’s list has raised Mallows Bay’s profile to the national level, said Park Superintendent Sammy Orlando, and corresponded with an increase in visitor traffic, perhaps also spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Bringing the bay to a postage stamp could teach even more people about it, he said.
“Despite the iconic nature of them, a lot of people don’t know about National Marine Sanctuaries,” Orlando said. “So to have the Postal Service — and creative minds like Peter Turcik — that bring the artistry of this place onto a stamp and have that partnership come together to raise awareness of these places is something that I think is magical in its own way.”
Turcik first visited Mallows in 2014 while working as an intern for the Chesapeake Conservancy, he said. The group was doing a trash cleanup in the area, and Turcik learned about the shipwrecks.
“I’m a fisherman, so my first thought was, ‘Oh man, look at all this great artificial reef for fish habitat,’” Turcik said.
But then he began to learn about the site’s history, too.
“It just got me really psyched about this place,” Turcik said.
There’s the fleet of ships hastily built for World War I to counter the German submarine offensive, then discarded after the war’s end. There’s also the abandoned S.S. Accomac ferry, which once transported cars from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Eastern Shore. The site has dozens of other ships, each with its own past — and a new life in the present.
Donald Shomette, a historian and archaeologist who has studied Mallows Bay, calls them “flowerpots.”
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“They’ve got their own little mini-ecosystems on board,” he said.
Soon after his internship, Turcik returned to help the conservancy create a paddle guide of the shipwrecks, snapping photos along the way. Then he was coming more and more to take photos for fun.
Since the site became a sanctuary, NOAA staffers have begun work to increase the amount of educational signage — alongside the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which owns Mallows Bay Park and leases it to Charles County — and other stakeholders, including the Piscataway Conoy Tribe and Piscataway Indian Nation.
“When you visit there now, there’s very little in place in terms of signage. I mean, almost nothing,” Orlando said.
Signs could help visitors identify vegetation and wildlife like osprey and great blue herons and offer historical facts about the bay, Orlando said. Organizers are hopeful that some sign installation will begin in the coming months, he added.
NOAA has also worked alongside the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to develop an early prototype of a virtual paddling tour, full of 360-degree videos guiding viewers around the bay.
“I‘m not sure if things like this would have been done had this not been a sanctuary,” Orlando said. “This is our chance to reach people in a completely different way that’s never been done before.”