The Skeleton Coast National Park is located at the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia and south of Angola from the Kunene River south to the Swakop River, although it is sometimes used to describe the entire Namib Desert coast. The Bushmen of the Namibian interior called it the region “The Land God Made in Anger”, while Portuguese sailors once referred to it as “The Gates of Hell”.
On the coast the upwelling of the cold Benguela current gives rise to dense ocean fogs (called “cassimbo” by the Angolans) for much of the year. The winds blow from land to sea, rain fall rarely exceeds a third of an inch annually and the climate is inhospitable. There is a constant, heavy surf on the beaches. In the days of human-powered boats it was possible to get ashore through the surf but impossible to launch from the shore. The only way out was by going through a march hundreds of miles long and only accessible through a hot and arid desert.
The coast is named for the bleached whale and seal bones which covered the shore when the whaling industry was still active, as well as the skeletal shipwrecks caused by rocks offshore in the fog. More than a thousand vessels of various sizes and areas litter the coast. Notable wrecks in the region include the Eduard Bohlen, the Otavi, the Dunedin Star, and Tong Taw.
The coast is generally flat, occasionally relieved by rocky outcrops. The southern section consists of gravel plains, while north of Terrace Bay the landscape is dominated by high sand dunes.
Evidence of some human occupation, in the form of the Strandloper people in the past, is evidenced by shell middens of white mussels found in portions of the Skeleton Coast.
Namibia has declared the 6,200 sq. mi. Skeleton Coast a national park over much of its area, from the Ugab River to the Kunene. The northern half of the park is a designated wilderness area. Notable features here are the clay castles of the Hoarisib, the Agate Mountain salt pans and the large seal colony at Cape Fria. The remainder of the coast is the National West Coast Recreation Area.
The coast has been the subject of a number of wildlife documentaries, particularly about adaptations to extreme aridity. Many of the plant and insect species of the sand dune systems depend for their moisture on the thick sea fogs which engulf the coast and windblown detritus from the interior as food. The desert bird assemblages have been studied in terms of their thermoregulation, coloration, breeding strategies and nomadism.
The riverbeds further inland are home to baboons, giraffes, lions, black rhinoceros and springbok. The animals get most of their water from wells dug by the baboons or elephants.