The Best of our Underwater State Parks

With local State Park closures imminent, our underwater state parks are slated to remain federally protected for years to come.

For the past five years, Santa Cruz locals and the many marine species of the Central Coast have had at least one thing in common – a federal environmental protection called Marine Protected Areas that was put in place to promote healthy ocean ecosystems and revitalize our fisheries after years of misuse and over-harvesting.

The Central Coast Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), otherwise dubbed as our underwater state parks, span from Año Nuevo in the north, all the way down to a place called Vandenberg south of Morro Bay. 

There are currently 5,000 Marine Protected Areas all around the world, yet only 0.7 percent of our oceans are protected under this designation. In 2007, twenty-nine Marine Protected Areas were established here on the Central Coast, with 13 being State Marine Reserves, 13 as State Marine Conservation Areas, two as State Marine Parks, and one as a State Marine Recreational Management Area.

Together, these Marine Protected Areas account for 18 percent of the marine environment included in the area known as the Central Coast region of MPAs. 

If this all sounds a little too ‘science-y’ for you, you might be surprised to learn that some of your favorite natural places are actually included in the Central Coast MPAs, and your enjoyment of these places and often goes hand in hand with the wildlife experiences they offer. Places such as Año Nuevo, Greyhound Rock, Natural Bridges, Elkhorn Slough, the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel Bay, Point Lobos and the rugged Big Sur coastline are all a part of the Central Coast MPAs. 

A trip to Año Nuevo throughout the winter months has the power to get just about anyone thinking about marine protections and the amazing abundance of wildlife here on the Central Coast.

With the largest breeding colony of northern elephant seals in the United States, Año Nuevo has become a safe haven for these endangered species, and onlookers might never be the same after their first elephant seals experience there.

The waters of Año Nuevo also host a large concentration of great white sharks (look out, elephant seal pups!), attract sea lions and harbor seals, and support incredible shoreline tidepools that house more than 300 species of invertebrates. 

South of Santa Cruz lies another natural wonder of the Central Coast: . Elkhorn Slough is a Marine Protected Area, specifically a State Marine Reserve and State Marine Conservation Area, and includes the adjacent Moro Cojo Slough State Marine Reserve.

This environment is breathtaking any time of the year, but receives many visitors during the months of warmer weather and longer days, eager to get out on a kayak and experience the plethora of species that call Elkhorn Slough home. This estuary is one of the few coastal wetlands remaining in the state of California, only second in size to the San Francisco Bay. 

And how can you beat a day trip to Point Lobos south of Carmel? Known for its unique rocky outcropping, its world class dive spots, and the sea otters and artists who have brought international fame to the region, there’s simply nothing on earth like Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

A lack of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and wildlife opportunities will never be used to describe the Central Coast of California. For many of us, they are what keeps us happy, healthy, and fit after many a year spent in this little corner of the world we call Santa Cruz.


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