Travel Guide: Discovering The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, USA

One of the world’s most spectacular marine protected areas, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the world!

Specifically, known as the “Serengeti of the Sea”, it stretches along the central coast from San Francisco to Cambria. In particular, including pristine beaches, jewel-like tide pools, lush kelp forests, steep canyons, and an offshore seamount teeming with life—from tiny shrimp to giant blue whales.

Most importantly, The National Marine Sanctuary System promotes environmental protection, stewardship, and ocean research. Significantly, Barack Obama is inviting you to explore and help protect this national undersea treasure. Mainly, in the fourth episode of the new Netflix series ” Our Great National Parks “.

California’s vibrant coastline gets its close-up, with an emphasis on the delicate balance struck between wildlife and humanity. The 8% protected waters stretching along a quarter of California’s Coastline make up the Monterey Bay. The rich waters of Monterey Bay are made up of the largest and deepest sea in the world, aka the Pacific Ocean.

A unique combination of geology, weather patterns, and currents makes this sanctuary one of the most productive ocean ecosystems on Earth. Each year, animals travel thousands of miles just to reach these rich feeding grounds. Like any popular neighborhood, it’s got just the right mix of great places to live and eat.

Marine and Land Species

The underwater wonder at Monterey Bay
The underwater wonder at Monterey Bay/ Credit: Trip Advisor 

A natural wonder, which is home to 34 species of marine mammals. Specifically, a resting and relaxing hotspot for more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds. Moreover,  at least 525 species of fish, and an abundance of invertebrates and algae. Whereas we can say that the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is rightly known as the “Serengeti of the Sea.

The unique reserve of more than six thousand square miles hosts visitors.  Particularly, like the monarch butterfly, the magnificent blue whales, the funny-looking otters that pay a visit to California’s doorstep.

Let’s discover the beautiful creatures of the land and sea that encompass the serene waters of the bay. Subsequently, along with some exciting places that you have to visit in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. 

The Northern Elephant Seals 

The Northern Elephant Seals lounging in the sand
The Northern Elephant Seals lounging in the sand/ Credit: Noaa 

The habitat of co-existence, each season there is a dramatic story at the foot of the vast expanse of blue waters. The toughest season in the bay is winter in Point Ano Nuevo, (the northern end of the sanctuary). In the remote dunes beside the plush crystal blue waters, resides California’s most charismatic visitor. Specifically, the Northern Elephant seals personify their names after their humongous lone snouts that they use to attract a mate.

The most interesting fact that I was unaware of even when I had the pleasure of witnessing the might of these giant creatures through my eyes is the way the mothers permanently move away from their pups after feeding them their milk for six months.

While this may not seem so interesting to you, one in a thousand pups who don’t want to accept his fate masters a strategy to suck another mother’s milk by kicking her pup out of the way. The scientists call them ” super weaners” who suckle 55% full-fat milk, which is the richest in the animal kingdom. It is no surprise that an average elephant seal weighs about 300 pounds in a mere four weeks. Shockingly, the “super weaners” double in size when their mother returns to sea to feed and leave the pup to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, one in forty pups is also subjected to being crushed by the heavy males if they are caught in the cross-fire of the damaging fights that the two tons of average-weight elephant seals frequently indulge in. Nature is savage but beautiful at the same time.


Orcas playfully thrashing in the Pacific ocean
Orcas playfully thrashing in the Pacific ocean/ Credit: Marine Sanctuary 

During the winter season in the Monterey Bay, food is scarce. The dry conditions in the vast open expanse of an ecosystem force its species to be very strategic when it comes to hunting for food to sustain themselves. Here comes the beautiful orcas, having seen the supremely intelligent creature up close.

I can rightly say that they belong in the ocean. Not in aquariums or restricted spaces for human entertainment.  In 2016, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act came into existence in the US. This prohibits the keeping of the easily reconcilable marine mammals in captivity, and artificial mating and insemination.  You can click here to find out more and donate to safeguard this magnificent sea creature to the National Wildlife Federation.

I know it’s horrific, how they are exploited, but shifting gears, let’s find serenity in the oceans’ top predators. They move in close family groups known as ” PODS ” and rely on the wisdom of the experienced Matriarch given the name Star by researchers who study her in her natural habitat. Star’s daughter is pregnant and she, along with her family, is on the prowl. To hunt, moving swiftly through the thrashing waves when they come across a lean, lonely sea lion who they devour like a snack. But they need more sustenance, so they celebrate their victory and rejoice by thrashing water with their tails. This action strengthens their family bonds, the same as humans who celebrate their achievements with their loved ones.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch 

The Whales feeding in the protected waters in Monterey Bay
The Whales feeding in the protected waters in Monterey Bay/ Credit: News UCSC 
Here, you can experience the magnificence first-hand at the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Specifically, marine biologists lead year-round boat tours to observe whales, dolphins & other marine wildlife. It is exciting to embark on this journey click here to find out more. Though you can frequently encounter lone adult males who are most likely orphans. Whereas the best time to see killer whales in Monterey Bay: mid-April through mid-May, and late August through October. Although killer whale sightings may occur any time of the year.

Surfing the Mavericks

A surfer ripping through the maverick wave
A surfer ripping through the maverick wave/ Credit: Surfer Today 

The shallow coastal waters swell up into the biggest known wave for surfing. At Mavericks, the waves rise as tall as apartment buildings and break so violently they can snap a surfboard-like a toothpick. The break is only surfable under the right conditions; some years the right combination of swell, wind, and weather never materializes. Each year, the Mavericks Big Surf contest is held here where surfers from all over the world compete to tame the ferocious waters of Monterey. But amateurs need to be cautious about embarking on such a risky surf, instead of riding the shallow waves. Be safe always.

Southern Sea Otters

Mother otter with her baby floating in the waters
Mother otter with her baby floating in the waters/ Credit: Fodors 

The Monterey Bay Sanctuary supports more than 2,000 critters. Specifically, known as the Southern Sea Otters, whose population dwindled to below a mere 50 as they were hunted for their pelts. The Old Whaling Port at Moss Landing in the center of the Monterey Port has its newest arrival. A baby sea otter who is merely hours old and dependent on his mother. His mother sea-otter is on the lookout for warmth and dryness. Along with a handy soal-out site to rest in the sun as she is tired from swimming. And carrying the weight of her baby otter. The new mother needs to be well-fed to safely stash her baby otter under the harbor.

The mother sea otter is nursing, so she needs a bit of time to forage for shellfish. Along with borrowing worms, she needs to eat for two, so double the calories as the pup otter will be weaned after six months. The beautiful scene of a mother otter carrying her baby on her stomach floating through the waters is a sight to behold.

Interesting Facts on Sea Otters

A sea otter enjoying sea urchin
A sea otter enjoying sea urchin/ Credit: 

A gift for the ocean’s winter warmth, the health of the climate is intimately connected to the health of our oceans. The north westerlies drive an upwelling of cold water from the deep. Subsequently, this brings nutrients to the shallow waters, creating mesmerizing patterns. Along with the coast, the forests of kelp with giant algae, which are a vibrant community.  The sea otters of Monterey’s are on a food search.

The kelp plays a key role in regulating climate change. Mainly by capturing 20 times more carbon per acre than forests on land. The base of the kelp provides a spring pantry of fresh food. The fussy eaters are on the prowl for fresh food. The young otters’ mom’s favorite food is spiky urchins.  While other otters search for mussels, once they get a chunk, the otters gorge on them and digest them in a very intelligent way.

The sea otters wrap themselves in the fronds of the sea kelp to nap without drifting.

Where can you find the Sea Otters?

Sea otters live in Monterey Bay year-round and can be seen just offshore floating on their backs among the kelp or diving for a meal.  Watch for sea otters all along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail in Monterey and Pacific Grove. Otters are also commonly found off the shores of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.  If you are traveling north, take time to stop near Moss Landing. Here you can find a large population of otters that can often be found relaxing together. Specifically near Moss Landing State Beach and the Elkhorn Slough (approximately 15 miles north of Monterey).

You may spot otters right now on one of these live webcams:

Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Web Cam

Disappearance of Sea Otters

Otters are a keystone species, which means their disappearance would have a major impact.  If it weren’t for sea otters, sea urchin populations would decimate the Bay’s kelp forests. Specifically, it provides a protective canopy for numerous species.  Thankfully, due to their high metabolism, sea otters constantly munch on crabs, clams, and urchins.   Up to 25 percent of their body weight, which would equal 40 pounds of food a day for the average human!

The Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly resting on a flower
The Monarch Butterfly resting on a flower/ Credit: The Guardian 

The Monterey Bay nurtures life beyond its borders. The warm currents flowing up from the south release heat and take a bite out of winter. This makes perfect conditions for a new visitor in the protected coastal woodlands in the city of Santa Cruz. The western Monarch Butterfly takes a 1,000-mile flight from Canada. The Monarch Butterfly is not alone but has morphed into the entire colony.  Further north, the protected areas in harsh winters once hosted millions of monarch butterflies sheltered in the woods. Now, only less than 1% of the population remains due to climate change and habitat destruction.

The trees protected the havens of the monarchs who wait until spring to arrive. The monarch butterfly spread its wings to absorb the heat generated by the bright shining sun. Additionally, the monarch butterfly flaps its wings to stir cold flight muscles. The colony of the monarchs dispersed inland to lay eggs.

To safeguard the beautiful butterflies for successive generations, there is new hope for the future of their species.

Location of the Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies flock to the region, settling in forest groves to wait out the winter. Though the butterflies congregate in areas from Big Sur through Monterey, their best-known wintering-over spot is in Pacific Grove.

The Monarch butterflies that come to Monterey County are a special generation of butterflies. While most Monarchs live only four to five weeks after they reach adulthood, the generation that overwinters in Monterey County lives up to six months. Even more incredible, scientists still aren’t sure how each new migrating generation knows the way warm-weather spots. This stunning display is best viewed at the Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary.

Where to see Monarch Butterflies?

Monarch Butterflies colony
Monarch Butterflies colony/ Credit: News Scientist

Every October, thousands of butterflies make a stop in a Pacific Grove eucalyptus grove, the preferred Monarch butterfly habitat, during their migration to warmer climates. The butterflies hang in clusters from eucalyptus branches to maintain body temperature, and the effect is stunning. Visitors come from miles around to take Monarch butterfly tours throughout the sanctuary.

The City of Pacific Grove created the butterfly sanctuary to preserve both this Monarch butterfly habitat and the opportunity to view this incredible natural display. The sanctuary is free, and visitors are invited to visit, watch, admire and take Monarch butterfly photos and videos, so long as they don’t touch them. (Molesting a butterfly is illegal in Pacific Grove — the fine is $1,000.) Monarchs stay in the Monarch butterfly grove from October until February, when they continue their migration south

Butterfly Parade

Pacific Grove’s annual Butterfly Parade, a tradition that goes back almost three-quarters of a century, is held on the first Saturday of every October. The Butterfly Parade, as well as the Butterfly Bazaar that follows, celebrates the return of the Monarch butterfly to Pacific Grove, the beautiful insects’ annual wintering stop.

An Underwater Abyss

The underwater canyon beneath the waters of Monterey Bay
The underwater canyon beneath the waters of Monterey Bay/ Credit: Deepwater deal 

In the spring season, the vibrant green kelp acts as a haven. As beyond the deep waters where there is nowhere to hide, the Monterey Bay conceals an underwater abyss. Every bit as magnificent as the Grand Canyon, a more than 10,000-foot-deep intersection splits the bay into two parts. Any animal swimming along the coast will cross the canyon.

Do you remember, Star and her pod with the calf? Now she is two months old. The pod timed their arrival to ambush the prey. Every April, gray whales and their calves migrate north through the sanctuary. While sticking close to the safety of the shore, camouflaged by the vast kelp forests. In the middle of the bay, they break cover to trap and hunt for their meal that will last for a while.

The adult gray whales are about eight times the weight of an orca. Although the sampler calf is a soft target, they remain silent. As the largest adult in the pod, lead the ambush.  The gray whale mother is protective of her calf, while the orca calf is learning from the intense maneuvers that the elders are using to effectively separate the adult gray mother from her calf. With a brutal end to the tussle between the two gray whales and the orca pod, the orca elders are passing on essential skills that their young orcas need to survive.

The Shark Park

A kayaker witnessing a young great white shark
A kayaker witnessing a young great white shark/ Credit: Weather 

When spring transitions into summer with a dramatic change in weather. Consequently, the land is warming the land all winter, the sea now cools it. The cold water welling up from the deep meets the warm summer air. Sea fog from June Gloom blankets the shore sanctuary.  Northern Edge envelops San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. In the next few months, the badly needed moisture along the coast. As one of the most drought-ridden states in America. From supporting towering forests that maintain a lush, green landscape through the hottest months.

Gradually, the summer sunshine burns off and the fog begins to warm the sea surface. New creatures appear after traveling a four-thousand-mile journey. The animals pair up en route to mating grounds further south. The giant sunfish which is ten feet across lies on their sides to soak up the sun’s rays.

Risso’s dolphins play in the swell. While the mysterious new arrival meanders a great white shark. The six-year-old is not big enough to maintain her body temperature. In the warm shallow cove in Santa Cruz, along with the summer visitors on the beach. There are dozens of young great whites that hang out in the summer. In the northernmost place in the Pacific. The Shark Park is present for human visitors of the sea to appreciate the icons of the sea.

Monterey’s Greatest Spectacle

Feeding frenzy
The jaws of two surface-feeding humpback whales snap shut around giant mouthfuls of anchovies in Monterey Bay near Moss Landing on Sept. 9, 2018. The whales will squeeze the water out the sides of their mouths through their comb-like baleens and swallow just the little fish.
(Courtesy of Kate Spencer, Fast Raft Ocean Safaris)

The sunkissed nutrient-rich water is a phenomenon that is visible from space. In particular, the billions of microscopic algae turn the ocean green. The tiny plant-like cells are the critical lifeblood of the ocean. Phytoplankton globally generate more oxygen than all rainforests combined. Within days, a green flame engulfs the surface lined with the coastline.  Most importantly, the green blooms are complex food chains.

When summer turns to fall, this triggers the start of incredible events.

Sea nettle jellies can be one and a half feet across and up to 15 feet in length. Otherworldly creatures gorge on the green blooms. The pulsating creatures fight the current to feast on huge swarms of anchovies. The huge shoals of fish stretch into a mile-wide menu. Specifically, for California Sea Lions. The anchovy hunters work in unison to consume their feast. The whales join in leading the sea lions to the shoals of anchovies from huge distances away.

When the anchovies panic, they constrict their shoals into a tight ball.

The 5,000-gallon mouthful through teamwork. The pod of dolphins feast on the shoal until it’s no more. The extraordinary banquet is one of the great wonders of the natural world.


Plastic bag trapping a fish at the Monterey Bay protected waters
Plastic bag trapping a fish at the Monterey Bay protected waters/ Credit: IndiaTimes

Playing out within sight of the densely populated landscape of the California coast. The Monterey Coast Marine Sanctuary has shown remarkable recovery with protected waters. It is only a small piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle. The ocean’s health with rising temperatures is a steep decline with higher sea temperatures. Furthermore, damaging entire ecosystems affects the food source supply of fish worldwide. Additionally, it is wreaking havoc on the food chain and pollution poisoning the pristine waters. There is a need to expand and connect natural sanctuaries all over the world. There is still hope for a better tomorrow if we watch the choices that we make from now on.

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