People connect with national marine sanctuaries in many different ways. For example, a surfer may view a sanctuary as a recreational escape; a fisherman, their livelihood; a vacationing family, part of a tradition; a local, a place for relaxation. To explore this idea further, I set out to hear from those who engage with national marine sanctuaries. My internship with NOAA specifically took me to the five national marine sanctuaries along the West Coast in Washington and California.
At each sanctuary I spoke with fishermen, sanctuary staff, visitors, indigenous people, sanctuary volunteers, and locals to better understand how they feel and identify with the place. Afterwards, I produced an acrylic painting for each sanctuary to summarize and celebrate the species, activities, and emotions mentioned during the conversations. I decided to paint my findings, because art can showcase the ocean’s beauty, as well as capture complex stories, relationships and emotions that are otherwise difficult to express. Here are some overviews of the five sanctuaries I visited. I am still completing some of the paintings.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Washington: A Wild Place, Then and Now
I made my way to the northwestern coast of Washington state to visit Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
The sanctuary includes a vast offshore area, including deep sea habitats, and an iconic, rugged coastline. Communities of the Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, Hoh Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation have long-lived connecti-ons to certain species, natural items, and places of the region. Today, the communities, simultaneously, celebrate ocean uses of their ancestors, contribute to marine management, and embrace modern fishing techniques.
Interviewees described the place as: “wild” and “remote.” I spoke with a Makah representative that explained how orcas are considered protectors of the tribe. He also spoke about halibut and salmon as being important to the people, historically and currently.
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, California: A Place of Mystery and Wonder
Next I traveled to Point Reyes, California, to learn about Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This sanctuary differs from other sanctuaries along the West Coast as it is completely offshore and can be difficult to access due to unpredictable weather and ocean conditions. Luckily, advanced research technology and underwater photography has brought the sights of Cordell Bank to us.
Those I interviewed described the sanctuary as “productive” and “colorful.” A diver that helped with a technical research dive explained Cordell Bank as an underwater Mount Everest. He also said the water clarity was as “clear as gin.” The research photos of the sanctuary are breathtaking, showing rockfish, tropical-looking corals, anemones, and sponges — I highly recommend you google for them!
Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, California: Healthy Ecosystems and Communities
Next on my itinerary came Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, located just north of San Francisco, California. The sanctuary is a large, complex system of bays, estuaries, marshes, nearshore reefs, rocky shores, and oceanic waters. Greater Farallones also includes the iconic Farallon Islands that can be seen from San Francisco on a clear day.
Those I spoke with described the sanctuary as “rich with life,” and “clean.” I especially enjoyed a story about a woman who has been visiting the sanctuary since she was a child. She now brings her family to the place each year to swim, surf, and enjoy the scenery. Oh, also, a fun fact: the sanctuary is home to one of the largest populations of white sharks.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California: A Place for All
Next, I had the chance to explore Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary; the place I live and describe as “my home.” This sanctuary is adjacent to the Big Sur coastline, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Half Moon Bay. Many describe the sanctuary as one of the best places on Earth to watch marine wildlife. Its diverse habitats – large sandy beaches, uninterrupted kelp forests, rocky shorelines – offer visitors endless recreational activities. It also includes a variety of features like an inactive underwater volcano and a deep–sea canyon the size of the Grand Canyon.
A diver described the sanctuary as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen,” and others explained the place as “home,” “my sanctuary,” and “life.” One volunteer at the Visitor Center in Santa Cruz explained how she sees the sanctuary through her daughter’s eyes. Her daughter loves sea otters, and used to count the amount she could spot at Elkhorn Slough.
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California: A Magical Place, Focused on Community
For my final stop, I headed south to visit Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is just off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura and surrounds the five Channel Islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. The islands are surrounded by majestic coastal vistas, kelp beds, and diverse shoreline features. The islands and surrounding productive marine area have been, and continue to be, special to the Native American Chumash community.
People explained the place as “magical” and “a place that celebrates community.” I had the chance to speak to a Chumash weaver who explained the importance of the islands and marine area to the community. I was especially intrigued by the community’s connection to abalone, for food, canoe inlays, jewelry, and more. She also mentioned that the species is much more scarce now due to changing water quality and temperatures.
Our Shared Connection
My summer journey confirmed that national marine sanctuaries are valued by various individuals and groups for different reasons — depending on time, ocean uses, background, and interests. The diverse accounts of how people connect to a national marine sanctuary, when woven together, create a dynamic story, a story that reflects how we collectively think of and value a place. I look forward to sharing my paintings, shortly.