A photographic tour of California’s marine protected areas

Take a virtual tour of California’s marine protected areas. Meet the otters, seals and incredible diversity of ocean life that call these protected ecosystems home.

Ben Grundy

Conservation Campaign Associate, Environment California Research & Policy Center

Karla Garibay Garcia

Senior Conservation Manager, Azul

Footage of the World | Shutterstock

Leer en Español: Un recorrido fotográfico por las áreas marinas protegidas de California

From the waves crashing around the Santa Monica Pier to seabirds flying high above the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California’s coastline is a place we go to relax, play, and be at one with nature. And we’re not alone: California’s coast is a hotspot for ocean life, including breaching whales, charismatic sea otters and darting seabirds. Many migratory marine animals find refuge in California’s nutrient rich waters during their long journeys up and down the North American coast and even around the world.

Discover five of California’s marine protected areas that make up this awe-inspiring underwater world on our virtual dive.

As stewards of this ocean bounty, California has led the nation in setting aside special habitats off our coast and creating refuges for ocean life. As our network of marine protected areas (MPA) — like state parks in the ocean — turns 10 years old, we want to highlight how these areas can help endangered species, restore fish populations and create resilience in the face of unforeseen disasters. Join us on a tour of these remarkable places.

Scroll down to dive in.

Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area

Dhilung Kirat via Wikimedia | CC-BY-2.0

Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area, a safe haven for endangered seabirds

Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) was established in 2012 off the coast of Santa Barbara to protect a 10 square mile patch of ocean from disturbance — and help one of our seabirds, the western snowy plover, thrive.

Habitat loss, increases in introduced predators and human disruption of nesting sites have put a tremendous strain on the snowy plover. The sandy beaches onshore from Campus Point are an important nesting site for the snowy plover, a place where these threatened birds can lay their eggs, find plentiful nourishment, and replenish their population free from human disturbance.

A little way down the coast from the Campus Point SMCA protected area, at Huntington State Beach, not a single nest had been found for over 50 years – until one was discovered in 2017. In 2021, a total of 19 nests were found on Huntington and the nearby Bolsa Chica State Beach. 

The relative abundance of snowy plovers at Campus Point is an indicator of the indirect effects felt onshore when we protect areas of the water. When kelp washes ashore, it supports plovers by providing these opportunistic shorebirds with a source of food – flies and crustaceans. With the implementation of protections, scientists saw a decline in red sea urchins, animals that mow down kelp forests if left unchecked, off Campus Point, which will lead to healthier kelp forests and more kelp washing to shore for eager plovers to hunt for food.

Snowy plover

Snowy plover and chicks run across a California beach.

Photo by Alecia Smith, USFWS | Public Domain

Red sea urchin
Fish off Campus Point

Flag rockfish, starry rockfish and orange gorgonian coral at Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area, Santa Barbara

Photo by CDFWMARE | CC-BY-2.0

Campus Point

UC Santa Barbara, Campus Point Beach

Photo by 1000Photography | Shutterstock.com

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Abalone Cove State Marine Conservation Area

Ivanova Ksenia | Shutterstock.com

Abalone Cove and Point Vicente’s tide pools shelter diverse ocean ecosystems

Abalone Cove and Point Vicente, established as State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCAs) in 2012, contain one of the most mystical environments on Earth – the rocky intertidal zone. Colorful sea slugs shimmer in rippling tide pools; sea anemones wave at passersby with vibrant arms. Sea urchins lurk in dark corners and crabs shuffle to and from the breaking waves, fast-moving spots of brightness against a dark, rocky backdrop. 

These protected areas are a place for birds to find food and for seals to rest. They act as a buffer against rising sea levels. And they support a world of biodiversity that is able to withstand unpredictable wave action and drastic temperature changes – all over the course of a single day. 

While Abalone Cove allows harvest of certain species, with restrictions on types of fishing gear, Point Vicente is a no-take MPA, meaning that within its boundaries, any and all extractive activities are banned.

One key advantage that these areas have over remote MPAs out in the open ocean is that the intertidal region is close to land, and therefore, much more visible to people. Protections here are tangible, and one interesting finding to emerge from monitoring studies is an increase in a sense of stewardship among local residents that happens when an area is protected.

Brown Pelicans

Brown pelicans eye the waters at Abalone Cove

Photo by Indigo Mood via flickr | CC-BY-2.0

Purple urchin

Purple urchin in tidepools at Abalone Cove

Photo by Allison McAdams | Shutterstock.com

sea stars

Tide pools near Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Photo by Brian via Flickr | CC-BY-2.0

crab hiding in tide pool rocks

A striped shore crab hides in the tide pools near Abalone Cove

Photo by gendereuphorbia via iNaturalist.org | Public Domain

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Point Lobos State Marine Reserve

Jim Bahn via Flickr | CC-BY-2.0

Point Lobos giant kelp forests are home to sea lions and sea otters

For centuries, sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals have flocked to the rocky shoreline of Point Lobos, located off the coast of Monterey County, just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. More than 300 species of birds thrive in this area. 

Coldwater corals populate its rocky reefs. Vast eelgrass beds and kelp forests are home to a plethora of fish species, including California halibut and rainbow seaperch. And Dungeness crabs and brittle sea stars find safety on the soft, sandy seafloor. It is, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, “one of the richest marine habitats in California.”

As one of the oldest marine protected areas in the state, Point Lobos demonstrates the impact of protections over the longer term. A 2008 study of central coast marine reserves, including Point Lobos, found that sites protected for at least 25 years had significantly larger black abalone individuals and significantly more red abalone than unprotected areas. Research conducted after 34 years, however, found that the positive effects of the protections at Point Lobos were by no means confined to abalone. 

This long-term reserve shows that closing areas to fishing has a positive impact on the abundance of species targeted by commercial fishers, and that this positive effect can grow as the reserve is maintained.

Point Lobos provides a safe nursery for sea otters and other animals.

Photo by Keneva Photography | Shutterstock.com

A diver swims through a California kelp forest

A diver swims through a California kelp forest.

Photo by Jake Drake | Shutterstock.com


Jellyfish floating in the waters of the Point Lobos State Reserve

Photo by monterrydiver | CC-BY-2.0

Ling Cod

Lingcod hiding in a reef in the Point Lobos State Reserve.

Photo by Lieutenant John Crofts / NOAA Corps | CC-BY-2.0

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Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas

Vikki Hunt | Shutterstock.com

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a refuge for fish and fish-eaters as well.

In 2003, the State of California designated 10 marine reserves and two marine conservation areas in state waters within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary – a 1,470 square mile area of ocean around Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands in the Santa Barbara Channel. 

In the first five years of the reserves’ existence, the density of previously fished fish species had increased by 50% inside the protected zones, and the the amount and size of predators inside the reserves was greater than in unprotected areas. The increase in predator populations here is significant since both piscivores and carnivores play important roles in kelp forest ecosystems. 

These positive impacts clearly show that these reserves are working. But there’s another lesson to be learned here – the rich diversity of conditions and habitats in the area means the impact of protections may unfold differently in different protected zones around the Channel Islands. 

Since not all MPAs across a large, statewide network like California’s are going to respond to protections on an equal timescale, to effectively evaluate the benefits of these places we need both to protect them permanently and ensure that the varying conditions across a network are properly accounted for in evaluations of that network’s performance.

Channel Islands Harbor Seal

An adorable harbor seal in Southern California's Channel Islands swims out of the kelp and briefly stares into my camera for a picture.

Photo by Joe Belanger | Shutterstock.com

A diver swims through a kelp forest
Diver holds a large California Spiny Lobster amongst kelp in Channel Islands National Park

Diver holds a large California Spiny Lobster amongst kelp in Channel Islands National Park

Photo by NPS photo by Brett Seymour, Submerged Resources Center | Used by permission

Fish swimming through kelp forest in Channel Islands National Park

Fish swimming through kelp forest in Channel Islands National Park

Photo by NPS photo by Brett Seymour, Submerged Resources Center | Used by permission

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Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve

Blake Carrol | Public Domain

Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve is a nursery for endangered sea life.

In the ocean off the coast of San Diego County lies an undersea wonderland. Rocky reefs and dense kelp forests, sand flats and seagrass beds, and the dark depths of a submarine canyon system provide habitats for kelp bass, lobster, leopard sharks, rock scallop, every species of abalone and a whole host of other ocean species. 

This was not always the case. As early as 1940, researchers were beginning to notice a depletion of green abalone, broomtail grouper and giant sea bass in the area. Later, they found damage to the rim of La Jolla submarine canyon caused by squid trawlers dragging their nets across this sensitive deep-sea habitat – an important nursery for numerous marine species. 

In 1971, the San Diego-La Jolla Ecological Reserve was established “to protect threatened or endangered native plants, wildlife, or aquatic organisms or specialized habitat types.” Now known as the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve (SMR), this area of ocean is one of the oldest no-take MPAs in the waters off the southern California coast.

Since the establishment of the reserve, scientists have observed higher densities of rock scallops and sheephead in the reserve. Even better, male sheephead and green abalone are significantly larger in protected areas compared to unprotected areas. 

The reserve provides crucial protection for green abalone living in its boulder reef habitat and protects a critically important green abalone spawning aggregation, essential to replenishing drastically depleted populations of this species.

Sea Lions rest on the beach

Sea lions rest on the beach at La Jolla Cove.

Photo by Hit1912 | Shutterstock.com

Shovelnose Guitarfish in the sea grass

Shovelnose guitarfish cruises over seagrass off La Jolla, California.

Photo by Julian Gunther | Shutterstock.com

California sheephead

California sheephead

Photo by glmory / iNaturalist.org | CC-BY-4.0

Green abalone

Green abalone

Photo by zabby / iNaturalist.org | CC-BY-4.0

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We need the ocean.

We need it, apart from anything else, for our own survival. It regulates our climate and weather. It provides us with water, food, and more than half of the oxygen in the air that we breathe. And it helps protect us from the impacts of climate change, absorbing around a third of all the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere.

But we are destroying it. Pollution, overfishing, offshore oil and gas drilling, and the impacts of climate change are wreaking catastrophic damage on the kaleidoscope of life that calls the ocean home, with serious consequences for the biodiversity on which the health of marine ecosystems depends.

Only 9% of California’s coastal waters have important protections

Ocean protections like the ones protecting these amazing places off our shore can make a difference in keeping our ocean healthy. But right now, only 9% of California’s coastal waters enjoy strong protections from destructive practices like commercial fishing and offshore drilling. That’s why we’re working to strongly protect 30% of our coastal sea by 2030, in line with Governor Newsom’s executive order to fight climate change, conserve biodiversity and boost climate resilience.

Join us in the movement to protect more of our coastal wonderlands.


Ben Grundy

Conservation Campaign Associate, Environment California Research & Policy Center

Ben leads Environment California’s campaigns to tackle conservation issues at the local and state level. Ben lives in Alameda, where he enjoys playing basketball, cooking and taking walks on the beach.

Karla Garibay Garcia

Senior Conservation Manager, Azul

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