This desert was once a sea (and home to a fleet of ghost ships)

When a lake (or in this case, a sea) dries up, it’s not often that there are real ships left – except that’s exactly what happened here.

If anyone thinks the Salton Sea (both its creation and its disappearance) is an ecological disaster, wait until you see the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world (and almost the third largest lake). Today it is all but gone and the fishing boats that once fished its rich waters now lie in the middle of the desert.

It’s a real apocalypse that has happened, and now you can see fishing fleets in the middle of the desert. Another famous disappearing lake is the Dead Sea – in doing so it forces textbooks to rewrite that the lowest point on earth is around one meter every year.

The old size of the Aral Sea

The only lakes larger than the Aral Sea were the nearby Caspian Sea, Lake Superior, which was nearly the same size as Lake Victoria in Africa. It was bigger than Lake Michigan or Like Heron.

The Aral Sea is (was) located in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It is an endorheic lake (lake without outlet). It began to decline in the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 2010s.

  • 1997 : Only about 10% of its original size (separated into four lakes)
  • Cut: 68,000 kilometers2 (26,300 square miles)
  • Last name: Translated as “Sea of ​​Islands” – There were over 1,100 islands

Related: What Makes Uzbekistan Central Asia’s Most Popular Country (And Why It’s Worth Visiting Once)

The disappearance of the Aral Sea

By 2009, the Southeast Lake that had formed had disappeared, and the Southwest Lake had all but disappeared. Most of what remains of the lake is in northern Kazakhstan. What was once the eastern part of the lake is not the Aralkum Desert.

  • Aralkum Desert: The eastern basin of what was the Aral Sea

There is an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and restore the North Aral Sea and they have had some success. The salinity has dropped and there are once again enough fish to sustain the fishery.

The United Nations has called it one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet. In 2021, the World Bank said:

Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has nearly disappeared, and it seems nothing can be done to revive its parched seabed, restore its natural habitats and prevent toxic dust storms from decimating communities and livelihoods across the region..”

The problem was that the Soviet Union diverted water from the rivers that fed it to irrigate about two million hectares of agricultural land in the Ferghana Valley. Water was diverted to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan. The lake starved and evaporated.

As the waters receded, the sea became saltier and the fish began to perish due to the increasing concentrations of fertilizers and pesticides. Much of what was once the lake is now a poison wasteland.

Related: 25 Incredible Places We All Need To Visit Before They’re Gone

The ghostly fishing fleets

Today, visiting the ghostly remnants of the once vibrant fishing industry is one of the main attractions of the Central Asian country Uzbekistan. It’s a chance to see a real human apocalypse in the flesh.

Today it is surreal to see a rusting fleet of fishing boats stranded in the middle of the desert. In the past, a vast fleet once fished in its waters, but now the fish are dead, the water is gone, but the fishing boats remain.

The fishing industry once supported thousands of people and according to the BBC, the town of Moynaq was “home to a huge fishing fleet and a canning industry that processed fishermen’s catch.”

A former fisherman called Khojabay told the BBC in 2015

There were fishermen, cooks, sailors and engineers. These large ships could not reach the shallow docks when the seas began to shrink. One by one they washed up in the soft mud, and the mud became the sand in the wind that you see now.”

Some of the biggest of these fishing boats could carry 40 men, but now they are just rusting hulks in what was once a port. They are a ghost fleet of what was once one of the largest lakes on earth – now a fading memory.

At the height of this once mighty lake, the Aral Sea accounted for up to a sixth of the Soviet Union’s fishing catch.

As with the Salton Sea in California, cities are now plagued with health issues from the toxic dust that is kicked up from the bed of the ancient lake.

Discover the Phantom Fleet

Perhaps the best guide to the Central Asian region is Caravanistan. Although one can easily visit on one’s own, if one wishes to take a tour, there are tours departing from the nearby town of Nukus.


  • Group of two: $290 per person
  • Group of three: $215 per person
  • Group of four: $190 per person
  • Included: 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser, Accommodation in yurts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner
  • Additional: Tour guide $110 per group

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