Assateague Island – Berlin, Maryland - Atlas Obscura
Unusual adventures and hidden discoveries. Explore our 2018 trips now »

Berlin, Maryland

Assateague Island

Wild beach ponies who go for a swim each year, and the legend of a buried 18th century ship. 

This 37-mile long island belongs to two states, three conservation agencies, and two herds of feral ponies, which each year swim across the channel to Virginia.

Located off the eastern coast of the Delmarva peninsula, Assateague Island is a designated National Natural Landmark, with two thirds of the island in the state of Maryland and the remaining third in Virginia. The entirety of the island is owned by three different agencies: the National Park Service, Maryland State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

While no humans live on the island, herds of wild ponies have been inhabiting Assateague for hundreds of years. The ponies are remarkably well-adapted to their feral island lifestyle, living off of dune and marsh grasses and drinking from the island’s freshwater ponds. There is some debate as to whether the ponies are in fact ponies genetically or horses who have gradually become smaller in stature due to their environmental adaptations. 

There are various theories surrounding the origins of Assateague’s feral equines, but a local legend has it that they are the surviving ancestors of a shipwreck that occurred off the coast hundreds of years ago. There is some evidence to suggest there may be truth in this story, as the captain of the Spanish galleon La Galga historically recounted wrecking his ship “within two ship-lengths” of the Maryland-Virginia border in 1750. A number of treasure hunters have sought the sunken galleon to no avail, but recent findings suggest that the ship may actually be buried beneath the sand of Assateague Island, as the beach has been built out and the coastline has changed significantly over time. Maritime historian John Amrhein has petitioned to lead an archeological excavation of the site where he believes La Galga has been buried, but has been met with some opposition and still awaits permission. 

Assateague’s Virginia pony population is rounded up annually by neighboring Chincoteague Island’s volunteer fire company for the Chincoteague Pony Swim. “Saltwater cowboys” herd the wild ponies across Assateague Channel during low tide to Chincoteague, where they are corralled and later put up for an auction benefitting the fire department. Ponies are bid upon either for personal ownership or as “buybacks”, in which case the ponies are returned to their island home for another year of feral roaming.