Beyond Your Wildest Dreams – Monterey Bay

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” – Jacques Cousteau

The iconic coastline of Santa Cruz County is well known for surfing, beautiful hiking along ocean cliffs, and the Beach Boardwalk. What many visitors may not know is that the true treasure of Santa Cruz lies beneath the waves of the ocean that laps at the shores of our beaches. Santa Cruz County is home to the Monterey Bay, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Ocean” for its trenches and extreme depth, and the “Serengeti of the Sea” for abundant wildlife viewing. This expanse of oceanic wonder is so much more than a bay, it is a National Marine Sanctuary home to one of the most productive coastal ecosystems in the world. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is known as a state and federal marine protected area known as an MPA and it includes 14 different unique marine areas. Just as we preserve our beloved parks like Wilder Ranch, Henry Cowell, and Nisene Marks, MPAs help restore, protect, and preserve the precious places under the surface of the ocean to ensure the longevity of our marine ecosystems for future generations.  

Photo by Brad R. Lewis

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stretches from San Francisco to Cambria with Santa Cruz nearly at the heart of the massive expanse of ocean. The Monterey Bay, at its deepest point, reaches 12,743 feet, which is two miles straight down. It is one of our nation’s largest national marine sanctuaries, covering more underwater area than Yellowstone National Park. 1 The Monterey Canyon, which resembles the impressive topography of the Grand Canyon, is one of the deepest submarine canyons on the west coast of the United States. With so many incredible features, the Monterey Bay is a hub for marine research and at the heart of ecological restoration efforts for species like the southern sea otter. The awe-inspiring massiveness and uniqueness of the Monterey Bay makes it one of our country’s most remarkable natural features.  

 1 Lisa Wooninck, “Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Overview

This impressive oceanic ecological landscape is home to a bounty of marine wildlife. Researchers have identified within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary 36 species of marine mammals, more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds, at least 525 species of fishes, and an abundance of invertebrates and algae. The Santa Cruz area is known for sea lions, sea otters, and whales. Visitors can enjoy whale watching year-round to see humpback, grey, blue, and killer whales. Just north of Santa Cruz is Año Nuevo State Park which is a hot-spot for elephant seal activity and just south is Elkhorn Slough, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, that helped restore sea otter populations from near extinction. The entire Monterey Bay is bursting with marine life just waiting to be explored! 

Santa Cruz sits near the northern end of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and is home to several MPAs where visitors, locals, and scientists can explore the wonders beneath the ocean’s surface. There are three main ways to access these marine protected areas without ever having to leave Santa Cruz. The first is at Natural Bridges State Beach, also a State Marine Reserve, which features tide pools brimming with wildlife and a gorgeous natural stone arch just offshore. The Santa Cruz Wharf, the longest wharf in California, is another way to experience our marine ecosystem. At the base of the wharf is Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center which allows visitors to learn in-depth about the spectacular underwater ecosystems that exist just offshore. In addition to these areas of exploration, Santa Cruz’s unique positioning at the top of the bowl-shaped Monterey Bay means visitors and locals alike can catch epic ocean sunrises and sunsets every day, year-round.  

Photo by Mei-Li Restani

Endless activities are available for visitors and locals to experience the magic of the Monterey Bay. Water sports enthusiasts or those looking to try them for the first time can get out onto the water with kayaks, paddle boards, and of course, surfboards! Another great way to experience Santa Cruz by sea is to head out on a local yacht or sailboat charter like the O’Neill Yacht Charters or the Chardonnay. In addition to fishing off the Santa Cruz Wharf, visitors can also go out on numerous fishing boat charters to experience the bounty of ocean life that makes our local sea-forward cuisine so fresh and delicious. If you’re looking for a hand’s on experience of marine life in Santa Cruz, definitely check out our endless tide pooling locations where you can explore the incredible ocean treasures revealed by low tides. For more leisurely experiences, dining by the water out on the wharf or at our harborside restaurants is a fantastic option for enjoying the beauty of the ocean.

Regardless of how you choose to experience the astounding beauty of the Monterey Bay here in Santa Cruz, remember to always recreate responsibility by packing your trash, leaving no trace, and respecting wildlife. The ocean is a true treasure that we can protect and preserve by acting as environmental stewards dedicated to maintaining and restoring our marine spaces. For tide pooling, this looks like taking photos, not souvenirs; leaving shells or other oceanic treasures where you found them; and watching your step to ensure you don’t crush any critters! For wildlife viewing, always remember to maintain a safe and respectful distance. Avoid loud noises and sudden movements to not interrupt the habitats or habits of any animals you may encounter. The MPA Collaborative Network allows locals to have a say and participate in the future of MPAs along the California Coast. The MPA Collaborative Network is dedicated to empowering diverse communities to engage in marine protected area stewardship for a healthy ocean. Get involved by volunteering, learning more, and supporting their initiatives.  

Learn more today about how to explore the Monterey Bay and Beyond with this pdf

Header and footer photos by Ben Ingram; all other photos by Monica Multer