PHOTOS: Go Aboard A Fleet Of Military Ghost Ships Decaying Off The Coast Of San Francisco

Since 1946, the United States’ government has maintained fleets of various “mothballed” ships, which can be readied and used in case of a crisis.

These boats, some of which are very old, include military ships that served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Desert Storm, as well as civilian merchant ships from previous decades. The fleets sit, mostly untouched and off-limits, in the coastal waters of California, Texas, and Mississippi, as well as North Carolina and New Jersey.

One of the fleets, located off the coast of San Francisco in Suisun Bay, once counted as many as 340 ships in its ranks. Today, 10 ships remain, rusting in the California sun, leaving toxic chemicals in the water. Because of this, the Maritime Administration has mandated their scrapping. By 2017, they will all be gone.

Boarding these ships is strictly prohibited to the general public — getting onto one at all is a tall task. However, photographer Amy Heiden gained access to the decaying ships before some of them were scrapped, shooting on their decks as well as inside the vessels.

The 'Mothball Fleet' is about a mile off the coast of Suisan Bay, a body of water Northwest of San Francisco, near the town of Benicia.

Many of the ships were former military vessels. The USS Nereus, a submarine tender, joined the fleet in 1971 and didn't move until 2012, when it was sent to Texas to be scrapped.

The ships pose an environmental threat, as they have already dropped around 20 tons of barium, copper, lead, and zinc into the bay.

The ships have been 'mothballed' -- meaning maintained and not completely abandoned. In the event of a crisis, military or otherwise, they could be brought back into service.

Much of the fleet that Heiden photographed has already been scrapped. This attack cargo ship, the USS Tulare, was held inside a larger mining barge in the fleet until 2012, when it was sent to be dismantled.

The ships' interiors can feel like a time warp. The USS Tulare was commissioned in 1956, and much of its equipment reflected that era, before advanced naval technology.

But old and new tech mingle on the mothballed fleet. Also on the mining barge sat the famous Sea Shadow, a stealth ship built by Lockheed Martin in 1984. Kept secret until 1993, the Sea Shadow was an experiment in radar-evading naval technology. The ship was finally sold for scrap in 2012.

Aboard the USS Northern Light, a cargo ship commissioned in 1962, times stands still. Here we see living quarters, untouched for years.

A meeting room on the USS Northern Light, complete with a large nature mural, of all things. The boat joined the Suisun Bay Reserve fleet in 1991.

The captain's offices probably weren't this big a mess when the ship was doing its duty.

The USS Hassayampa, a replenishment oiler, shows it age. No surfers have slept in this bunk since 1978, when the boat was decommissioned.

The USNS General Edwin D. Patrick, a ship that carried troops during World War II, was sent to Brownsville, Texas to be scrapped in 2012. Only 10 ships now remain in the Suisun fleet.

Below deck, these ships are rusting away.

Not all ships in the Suisun Bay Mothball Fleet will meet a scrap-metal death. The USS Iowa, a battleship, was moved to the Los Angeles area a few years ago and turned into a naval history museum.

Other ships, however, will not meet such an honorable resting place. By 2017, the Suisan Bay fleet will be no more, with all of the remaining ships sent to be dismantled.

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