Unveiling Mysteries: Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Underwater photography and advancements in technology have provided us views of life under the ocean surface. Photographers from National Geographic, and the like, have connected us to the ocean and the marine creatures that were once a complete mystery to humans. Although I have been mesmerized by many ocean images, perhaps none have left me in awe quite like the photos of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I found myself lost in the magnificence of the photos — from the bright orange and pink invertebrates to the thousands of rockfish circling in the background. These photos of Cordell Bank, as well as my conversations with those engaging with the sanctuary highlighted the beauty, the productivity, and the mystery there.


Cordell Bank. Photo Credit: SIMoN, Joe Hoyt / NOAA CBNMS

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1989, covers 1,286 square miles of ocean off the coast of Point Reyes, California. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is Cordell Bank, a rocky undersea feature that rises to 115 ft. below the ocean surface. It is located 22 miles offshore. The topography, as well as ocean conditions make the overall sanctuary diverse and productive. If you haven’t heard of the sanctuary, you’re not alone. Unlike other marine sanctuaries, Cordell Bank is offshore with no direct coastal access. In addition, bad weather and rough ocean conditions often make it difficult to reach (and enjoy) the sanctuary by boat.

Cordell Bank. Photo Credit: SIMoN, Joe Hoyt / NOAA CBNMS

As access is limited to the general public, photos and stories are essential to experiencing the special place. Those who have reached the sanctuary speak of its wonder: there was an explorer that saw five sperms whales there; a researcher that has been surrounded by 30 blue whales; and a fisherman that raves that Cordell Bank was (prior to 2005, when fishing closed at the bank due to low rockfish populations) the ultimate spot for fishing. I also spoke to a researcher that had the chance to support a technical research dive at the bank. He lit up talking about the beautiful colors and how “the water was clear as gin.” The researcher, as well as another interviewee compared Cordell Bank to an underwater Mt. Everest.

With limited access, the general public could also be largely unaware of the anthropogenic stressors the sanctuary, and the general region are facing. Global changes, including changes in climate, seem to be on the minds of research and resource protection staff at Cordell Bank. Anthropogenic threats to ecologically important species also seems to be at the forefront of conservation concerns. For instance, during my visit to the sanctuary, a 70-foot blue whale washed ashore nearby. Researchers confirmed the cause of death was due to a vessel strike. This whale is one of nine whales that have washed ashore in the region since February 2018. Seven of the nine have died due to human causes.

When thinking of the ocean, it is easy to think of it as a vast, empty space. We typically only catch short glimpses of marine life in-person — a surfacing whale, a sea otter swimming, or sea lions napping on a pier. These sightings remind us there is life under the sea, however, there is so much more once you dive in. Without photography, technology, and skilled researchers, our ideas of the ocean are quite limited. The information provided by photos, like those of Cordell Bank, remind us that there are beautiful species, sophisticated communities, and places worth exploring and protecting out there. 

Photo Credit: SIMoN, Joe Hoyt / NOAA CBNMS

My trip to Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary was my third stop on my tour of West Coast marine sanctuaries. I have also visited Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (CA) and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (CA). Next up I will be exploring Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (WA), followed by Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CA). Following my tour, I will be painting images that reflect how people connect to each of these sites. You can follow my journey on Instagram at @seaing_sanctuaries


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