Exploring Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By guest writers Allison Randolph and Elizabeth Weinberg, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 

For more than 40 years, national marine sanctuaries have worked to protect special places in America’s oceans and Great Lakes waters, from the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, from Lake Huron to American Samoa. Backed by one of the nation’s strongest pieces of ocean-conservation legislation, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the sanctuaries seek to preserve the extraordinary beauty, biodiversity, historical connections and economic productivity of our most precious underwater treasures. And — lucky for you — most of these places are accessible to recreational divers. Sanctuary waters are filled with unique ecosystems, harboring a spectacular array of plants, animals and historical artifacts, all waiting to be explored. National marine sanctuaries belong to everyone, so dive in.

Experience one of nature’s most incredible light shows when just beneath the kelp-forest canopy. With the help of gas-filled floats, giant kelp reaches towards the sunlight at the water’s surface. Under optimum temperature, sunlight, and nutrient conditions, giant kelp can grow as much as two feet in one day and can reach maximum heights of 200 feet. (Photo: Pete Naylor/REEF)
Find beautiful anemones among the rocky reef and kelp forest. Huge swells during the winter can dislodge kelp holdfasts and cover anemones with sand, but between winter storms, when the water is glassy and calm, is actually one of the best times to see the kelp forest at its most impressive. (Photo: Chad King/NOAA)
An incredibly diverse array of brightly colored nudibranchs call Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary home. Don’t let the small size of these sea slugs fool you: many of them, including this aeolid nudibranch, are fierce predators, often eating other nudibranchs of the same species whole. (Photo: Douglas Mason)
On average, the marine sanctuary reaches 30 miles offshore, encompassing vast expanses of open ocean. Divers frequent these pelagic areas via boats to encounter a large variety of organisms, big and small, including ones like this egg-yolk jellyfish. (Photo: Josh Pederson/NOAA)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stretches along 276 miles of central California coastline and includes iconic areas like Big Sur. In this region, enjoy dive sites like Soberanes Point, Jade Cove and Partington Cove. (Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA)

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Slip beneath the ocean’s surface along California’s central coast and you’ll be amazed by a diversity of habitats and the abundance of marine life. Explore a giant kelp forest; investigate the crevices of a rocky reef; and discover all that lives in the open ocean.

Stretching down 276 miles of the California coast, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompasses more than 6,000 square miles of ocean. Its diverse marine ecosystems support more than 525 species of fish, 180 species of seabirds, 34 species of marine mammals, four species of turtle, and an incredible abundance of invertebrates and algae. The sanctuary also contains one of the largest and closest-to-shore deep, underwater canyons in North America. Offshore canyons bring cold, nutrient-rich water in close to shore, supporting a wealth of ecosystems — and occasionally affording glimpses of strange deep-sea creatures that venture towards the surface.

At first glance, the sand and mud flats of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary can seem barren…but take a closer look, being careful not to stir up the sand, and you will start to see incredible marine life like turbot, stingrays and guitarfish perfectly hidden in their environment. (Photo: Steve Lonhart/NOAA)
Hover above sub-tidal eelgrass beds with friendly kelp bass when you dive in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Eelgrass beds provide refuge for fish and invertebrates that retreat from intertidal areas during low tide, and also serve as vital nursery grounds for numerous marine species. (Photo: NOAA)
Sea otters are a pivotal marine mammal species native to this region: as predators of kelp-eating invertebrates like sea urchins, they help keep the kelp-forest ecosystem in balance. Observe them — making sure to give them plenty of space — as they dive to the seafloor in search of prey like sea urchins, mussels and crabs. (Photo: Steve Lonhart/NOAA)
Get your fill of brightly colored corals without going to the tropics. California hydrocorals thrive in the swift offshore currents at Outer Pinnacles, one of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s most popular dive sites. (Photo: Chad King/NOAA)
Find brightly colored sea stars and other invertebrates among the rocky-reef habitats common throughout sanctuary waters. Remember — it’s always best to enjoy the intricate beauty of a sea star without touching or picking it up. (Photo: Steve Lonhart/NOAA)

Home to some of central California’s most popular dive sites, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary includes 13 different zone types, each with associated regulations restricting or promoting specific activities. So whether you’re planning to dive the breakwater in Monterey, Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, or the Pinnacles at Carmel Bay, it’s important to check the regulations at each specific site.

While diving, you can help protect this marine sanctuary by practicing good ocean etiquette. First and foremost, don’t remove anything from the underwater environment since all things — living and nonliving — play an important role in the health of the ecosystem. Additionally, make sure to keep a safe distance from animals you encounter as well as the surrounding habitat; streamlining your dive equipment can improve your ability to do so. With so many people coming to enjoy the sanctuary’s underwater beauty each year, every careful diver can make a big impact.

Experience the wonders of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and other national marine sanctuaries via more photos here.

Cover image credit: Pete Naylor/REEF

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