Discover U.S. National Marine SanctuaryOur Planet is Blue...Dive In! Get Your National Parks and Public Lands Checklist
If all of the earth's water were poured onto the contiguous United States, it would cover the surface at a depth of about 107 miles
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is the trustee of more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. This federal office manages these public lands, where we can learn more about the blue world beneath our feet or boat!
Be warned, though, because experiencing these natural wonders in person will change you. Once you get up close and personal with this blue world and learn about wildlife, plantlife, and diverse ecosystems, you’ll understand why we should preserve and protect the natural spaces beneath the sea and waterways.
Percent of Earth Covered in Water
Square Miles Protected by Office of Marine Sanctuaries
Number of Marine Sanctuaries
Reasons to Discover a National Marine Sanctuary Near You
In this article, we’ll help you learn about the U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries which includes underwater parks, marine sanctuaries, and national monuments in some of the prettiest places in the United States. They are divided into three regions: East, West, and Pacific Islands. As of this writing, there are 3 sites that are being considered for addition to the Sanctuary System. These are public lands, managed by the NOAA. They are here for us to learn and play! Let’s get started!
The Eastern Region
National Marine Sanctuaries from Florida Keys to Wisconsin Shipwrecks
What is coral? Some think it’s rock because it’s attached to the ocean floor and has no noticeable features of an animal; however, it is a living, breathing thing.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
The Sanctuary covers more than 3,800 square miles from south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas
When most people think of the Florida Keys, they think of Hemingway, beach cruisers, fishing, diving in clear turquoise blue waters, and long, lazy days in the sun. And they are right! It’s also where North America’s most diverse collection of underwater plants and animals gather and is home to the world-famous coral barrier reef (the only one in North America). Nature lovers also find a complex marine ecosystem that includes mangroves, seagrass meadows, hard bottom regions, bank reefs, and patch reefs.
What is coral? Some think it’s rock because it’s attached to the ocean floor and has no noticeable features of an animal; however, it is a living, breathing thing. Corals meet all the criteria that define animals. They consume other organisms for food and have an internal digestive tract, embryonic development, motility, independent movement, and multicellularity. They are alive, which is why, just like observing every other marine life, you should do so with care.
The Sanctuary covers more than 3,800 square miles from south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas (excluding Dry Tortugas National Park) and protects over 6,000 species of marine life. It also protects shipwrecks (which seems like an oxymoron!) that divers of many skill levels can enjoy. You can learn more about the Sanctuary at the Discovery Center in Key West.
Sanctuary boundaries start when you step into the clear waters of the Florida Keys. To enjoy active outdoor recreation like diving, snorkeling, and fishing on your own, follow the rules and guidelines to protect the habitat or plan a trip with a “Blue Star” operator. These companies are committed to the education and protection of habitat conservation.
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Texas
Flower Garden Banks area was discovered by grouper and snapper fishermen.
Divers and anglers find a bit of Caribbean-like paradise here
Divers and anglers find a bit of Caribbean-like paradise here. Wildlife enthusiasts may see manta rays, sharks, and whale sharks. Spotted eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, and other species migrate from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico in early December and stay until about February. Click here for more information about diving at Flower Garden Banks.
Because the Sanctuary lies 80-125 miles offshore, most people will not see it up close and personal; however, you can visit a zoo and aquarium that brings the Flower Garden Banks to you. This is a great way to learn about the habit and understand why we should care about preserving it for us and future generations. Exhibit locations include:
- The Flower Garden Banks exhibit at the Aquarium Pyramid at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.
- Part of the Brazos River Country Exhibit at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas.
- A 40,000-gallon exhibit at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas. They created this exhibit in 1990 before the Sanctuary became a Sanctuary!
- The Ocean Journey building at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This hard bottom scattering of rocky outcroppings and ledges attracts a diverse species of fish like this black sea bass resting inside a vase sponge.
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Georgia
This hard bottom scattering of rocky outcroppings and ledges attracts a diverse species of fish, the threatened loggerhead sea turtle, and is within the critical habitat for the only known winter calving ground of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Lemon sharks may be spotted when you dive or snorkel; you’ll recognize them by the yellowish tint to their skin that helps them blend into the sandy shores they prefer to skim.
The Sanctuary covers 22 square miles. Even though it doesn’t get as much attention as other marine sanctuaries, divers and anglers have enjoyed abundant marine life beneath the surface for years.
You will find exhibits about the area at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center; Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina; South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston; Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor’s Center on Sapelo Island; Georgia Southern Museum and the History Museum in Savannah; University of Georgia’s Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island; and Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. Coming in the Spring of 2023, you can visit the Gray’s Reef Ocean Discovery Center in downtown Savannah.
Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary
Maritime history lovers will enjoy visiting the “Ghost Fleet”
The best way to see the “Ghost Fleet” is by kayak; however, you can also see outlines of the ships from the shoreline
Today, the overgrown wrecks form a series of distinctive islands, intertidal habitats, and underwater structures critical to fish, beavers, red-bellied cooter (turtle), and birds such as ospreys, blue herons, and bald eagles. These formations attract visitors to the area. They may come for outdoor recreation, then stumble upon a piece of American history.
A rich maritime heritage is preserved off the coast of the Outer Banks, North Carolina
Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, NC
The Outer Banks is the Graveyard of the Atlantic
The Outer Banks (OBX) has two historical distinctions. It is the site of the first English settlement in America and has a reputation for being the Graveyard of the Atlantic. It’s also a great beach getaway on the string of barrier islands! Estimates range from 2,000 and 5,000 shipwrecks along the shore. Many sank from weather or war. Why the significant disparity in how many ships there are? Once they locate a ship, weather can sometimes move or cover it up with sand. For example, the NOAA reported that the Brewster was not where expected during one of their expeditions, possibly shifted by a recent storm. The weather is still playing with these ships!
Once a ship has sunk, it becomes a habitat for sea life. In this historical watery graveyard, you can learn about maritime archaeology and the hidden stories of past weather events and wars, including the Civil War and both World Wars. You can find a list of the shipwreck off the North Carolina coast here.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, MS
Sitting at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, covering 842 square miles of open ocean
A minke whale puts on quite the show with a series of breaches through sanctuary waters! This was a rare sight at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
There are also exhibits on land to help share the story of Stellwagen Banks.
- New England Aquarium
- Maritime Gloucester
- Animals Without Passport – a traveling exhibit
Discover the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Trail where you will learn about Michigan’s rich maritime history along Lake Huron’s shoreline.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, MI
Visit Lake Huron’s time capsule of maritime history
A destination to add to your historical travel list is the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Trail. With various partners in the area, this experience gives you insight into northeast Michigan’s rich maritime history at access sites along Lake Huron’s shoreline.
You can stop at the 10,000 square foot Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center where you can purchase tickets for a glass bottom boat tour. Another point of interest in the Tawas Point Lighthouse, the prettiest lighthouse in Michigan. It’s great for birding and catching sunrise views over Lake Huron, the lighthouse has been in operation since 1876. Some people refer to Tawas Point as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Do you agree?
Home to 27 historic shipwrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places
Extending from Wisconsin’s Port Washington to Two Rivers, this area of Wisconsin-Lake Michigan, this is one of the newer additions to the National Marine Sactuary System
The Sanctuary boundary in Lake Michigan covers 962 square miles. Designated in 2021, 27 of the historic shipwreck sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the NRHP shipwrecks, 15 other known shipwrecks and 59 have been identified through historical records and have yet to be found.
Because the site is fairly new, amenities are still being developed. However, they are part of our public lands and you can explore them by boat or recreational dives.
The West Coast Region
National Marine Sanctuaries from California to Washington State
Female and juvenile sea lions crowd the beach at Channel Island national Marine Sanctuary
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, CA
According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), over 27 species of whales and dolphins live or visit the sanctuary, including blue, humpback, gray, and sei whales. Once you’re on the islands, expect to see seabird colonies, sea lions, and other small wildlife. You can explore by foot, paddle, boat, and diving. Wintertime low tide conditions bring interesting finds among the rocks.
You can reach the islands by private or chartered boats for diving, fishing, and whale watching. If you love shipwreck diving, there are 25 discovered sunken ships and many more yet to be found. Underwater exploration opens the gate to the “Galapagos of the North.”
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, CA
A rocky underwater island surrounded by 1,286 sqquare miles of nutrient-rich sea water.
313 steps lead you down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse where you can look for gray whales on a clear day or catch a glimpse of sea lions on the rocks
The Sanctuary is entirely offshore and covers 1,286 square miles, which makes in-person visits a no-go for most of us. The southern boundary is 42 miles north of San Francisco and runs as far west as 30 miles offshore. The Cordell Bank is like an underwater, rocky island that’s four and one-half miles by nine and one-half miles in size, sitting on the edge of a cliff that seems to drop off to the center of the earth! Well, it’s actually sitting on the continental shelf, which does drop abruptly. What it does for the Sanctuary waters is push up lots of nutrients from the ocean bottom.
While you cannot easily visit the depths of the ocean, and recreational diving is not recommended because of the conditions (depths of 115-140 feet, strong currents, rapidly changing sea conditions, and cold waters), you can climb down the 300 steps leading to the Point Reyes National Seashore Lighthouse for a unique look at the coastline and check out the Ocean Exploration Center that’s attached to the Lighthouse Visitor Center. Inside, you can learn more about this marine ecosystem. A large window opens up stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Point Reyes Beach without having to brave the high winds and cool temperatures the area is known for.
36 marine mammal species have been observed at the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctury including 28 whale, dolphin, and porpose species, 6 seal and sea lion species, and 2 otter species
Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, CA
Where sea lions bask in the sun on the beaches and rocky edges
You can visit the giant elephant seal rookeries during the breeding season from December through March and watch harbor seals, and sea lions bask in the sun on the beaches and rocky edges. Wildlife cruises run from late spring through fall. Onshore, you’ll have plenty of feathered friends to enjoy.
If you’ve never been to California’s central coast, you’re in for a treat! You’ll get more rocky cliffs and stunning landscapes than the sandy beaches of Southern California. The sites you can explore onshore span from Pescadero in San Mateo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County. Both are great, but the central coast has a different feel.
Plan a road trip along the coastline and experience the rugged shorelines, hidden beaches, wildlife, and trails. Or pick one county and take your time!
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, CA
Every year, animals travel thousands of miles just to be here. Many more humans do too!
Sometimes called the “Serengeti of the Sea” the protected waters off the coast of California are a playground for man and animal!
If you love to hike, bike, surf, dive, camp, spot wildlife, kayak, canoe, SUP, or explore the tidepools, you’ll enjoy the coastline along the protected waters. There are plans underway to create a scenic Trail along this long stretch of coastline so watch for that to unfold! There are several interpretive centers to visit along the route, including the Sanctuary Exploration Center, located steps away from the Santa Cruz wharf, and Coastal Discovery Center in San Simeon Bay, which the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary manages.
Downtown Monterey has several places to rent kayaks and paddle the waters. You are likely to see sea otters floating on kelp canopies, marine birds, harbor seals, and sea lions on your self-guided journey on the water.
Most of the waters along the Central Coast are protected. As you can imagine, it takes lots of people and organizations to help preserve the ecosystems so we can enjoy the public lands far into the future. In addition to the two visitor centers named above, there are many places to stop in and learn more in San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo counties. Check out the State Parks, State Beaches, Museums, Nature and History Centers, Aquariums, and Marine Discovery Centers along the way.
The scientists at Olympic National Park have a small window of opportunity to study intertidal communities. In summer months, they will get up at 2am and hike the dark trails to the shoreline along the Pacific Coast.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, WA
Towering kelp forests, deep-sea coral, 29 marine mammal species, 100+ bird species, and more than 200 recorded shipwrecks are just some of what you will find at this beautiul Pacific Northwest treasure.
This 135 miles of coastline is shared with Olympic National Park, Washington State parks, and Washington Coastal Treaty Tribes, so there are virtually unlimited ways to experience the magic of the Pacific Northwest. It’s located where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean.
A great way to start your trip to the Olympic Coast is at the Discovery Center on the Port Angeles waterfront. Then, you can choose your adventure:
- Hike the Olympic National park, which has everything from beaches to mountains.
- Explore the lowlands and oceanfront beaches in one of Washington’s State Parks.
- Grab your binoculars and stay at least 200 yards away to view birds and wildlife in and around Flattery Rocks, Quillayute Needles, and Copalis national wildlife refuges.
- Camp in the Olympic National Forest.
- Discover the new Maritime Washington National Heritage Area.
- Watch for Orcas on the Whale Trail.
- Learn the culture and traditions of the Native American tribes at Neah Bay, La Push, Hoh, and Taholah.
- Hike Shi Shi Beach, Cape Alava, Second Beach, Ruby Beach, and Kalaloch Beach.
- Birdwatch close to 100 species along the “Pacific Flyway” migration path.
And so many other activities!
The Pacific Islands Region
National Marine Sanctuaries from Hawai’i to American Samoa
American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary
An eroded volcanic crater has become the perfect home for the coral reef ecosystem on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa. This South Pacific location is the most remote Marine Sanctuary in the system.
To the untrained eye, this large Crown of Thorns Starfish is beautiful; to those who work on conservation efforts recognize that too many of this type can harm the coral reefs because that’s what they feed on.
Key species in the sanctuary include anemonefish, butterflyfish, coral and coralline algae, crab and lobster, dolphin, giant clam, grouper, hawksbill sea turtle, octopus, parrotfish, shark, southern humpback what, sponge, and surgeonfish.
Divers should bring their own gear and rent air tanks on the island. The water temperature is around 82 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and humpback whales migrate here between August and October.
Annual events include Flag Day on April 17, where you can see traditional longboat (fautasi) races, singing, and dancing.
Admission to the Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center is free and closed on weekends and holidays. Want to experience a virtual dive? Click here to enjoy Tafeu Cove, Tafeo Underwater, Big Momma, The Channel at Rose Atoll, Fagaele Bay, and Airport Pool.
Once on the island of Tutuila (American Samoa), the two most common ways to access the sanctuary are by boat or foot. The small beachhead on Fagatele Bay’s eastern shore is the only access point into the bay from the landward side of the island.
Plan your trip to the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.
Humpback whales, known as kohola, hang out pretty close to the coastline during their winter, so there are plenty of opportunities for shore-based whale watching from November through April.
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
This is where you may see 60,000 pounds of flesh, 39-52 feet long, breech and slap the waters of the Pacific. Humpback whales are not the only marine mammal in these warm waters, but they may be the most memorable.
Visitors to the islands during the winter can enjoy whale watching and other popular water recreation aligned with the sanctuary’s goals of keeping the waters safe and clean. You can surf the big waves that Hawaii is famous for or enjoy diving, snorkeling, boating, kayaking, paddling, or fishing.
To learn more, you can check out the Visitor Center at Kīhei, Maui, or Līhu’e, Kaua’i, where you can get involved in events and activities.
The threatened green sea turtle and endangered Hawaiian monk seal are protected at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. So is the world’s most endangered duck, the Laysan duck.
Give this little guy plenty of room to soak up the sun! The Hawaiian monk seal is endangered and protected in the beaches and waters throughout the Marine Sanctuary.
This Hawaiian monument, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, covers nearly 600,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The threatened green sea turtle and endangered Hawaiian monk seal are protected here. So is the world’s most endangered duck, the Laysan duck. Imagine 1,350 miles of coral islands, shoals, seamounts, and banks supporting a dynamic and fragile habitat. Public access is restricted; however, efforts are focused on bringing this rare environment to the public.
Until then, the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawai’i, historic Koehnen Building has interactive exhibits and a 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium to bring the “place to the people.” If you’re interested in getting a little closer, there are volunteer opportunities at the Center and other Sanctuary places.
~Proposed National Marine Sancturaries~
The nomination for Lake Ontario area began in 2017. The proposed boundaries are in review as of this writing. Both proposals encompass part of Eastern Lake Ontario, while one extends to the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. Why protect the underwater worlds for future generations? In the words of Jim Weiser, owner of RU4Scuba Dive shop, it’s so people can remember where we came from, learning “How did America become America?”
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Summary: U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries
When they say our planet it blue…they mean it! It’s beautiful too. Many of us were introduced to the life and struggles of the ocean by television or the big screen, watching animated productions like Ariel the mermaid singing about living on dry land and Nemo, the loveable clown fish trying to find his way home. Or movies about marine mammals like Free Willy the Orca whale as he made that amazing jump from the deep cool waters of the Pacific Northwest, or Dolphin Tale, the story about a Florida dolphin who lost his tale after getting tangled in a fisherman’s net. If you’re a little older (just a little), you may have marveled at the ground-breaking work of Jacques Cousteau. However your fascination with the sea began, once bitten, you are hard-pressed to get over the awesomeness of the ocean. The blue expanse transforms you. You are humbled by it, and respect it’s beauty and it’s power.
We have so many ways to enjoy our public lands. Get outside and discover the best National Parks in the USA, and experience the richness of our National Marine Sanctuaries. That’s just the beginning!
Below are links to the National Marine Sanctuaries. Once you go, we would love to hear about the experience! You can comment below, or share with us on Instagram. How do you love to dive into this Blue Planet of ours?
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