- Published on Friday, 01 March 2013 12:48
- Written by editor
Story and Photos by Mark Johnson
We are fortunate that our nation has a great many places with exceptional beauty and magnificence.
In 1872 our first National park was created by Congress at Yellowstone, and the National Park Service now manages our many National Parks and National Monuments. Protection of our exceptional marine areas lagged somewhat, but in 1972 the National Marine Sanctuaries Act was passed, and the first marine sanctuary was created at wreck site of the USS Monitor in 1975. Since then, Congress created and maintains 14 magnificent Marine Sanctuaries. Each is as outstanding as any National Park, and inclusion in the Sanctuary System ensures the habitat, along with wildlife and biodiversity, will be there for present and future generations to enjoy.
Sanctuary regulations prohibit specific activities, including dumping of materials, flying an aircraft under certain limits, drilling for oil and other mining activities. They also make stronger legislation to protect marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles and submerged cultural resources, such as shipwrecks. In recent years certain rules also prohibited the operation of "personal water craft" (jet skis) and attracting white sharks in some sanctuaries. It was the prohibition of oil drilling that single-mindedly drove the acceptance of the California Sanctuaries. Surprisingly, none of the sanctuaries have any jurisdiction over fishing.
In 1980, a portion of the Santa Barbara Channel was designated as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Anyone that has ever visited the Channel Islands realizes that this area is of national significance because of its exceptional natural beauty and resources. The Channel Islands Sanctuary encompasses approximately 1,470 square miles (or 1,110 square nautical miles) of water surrounding Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands, as well as Richardson and Castle Rocks, extending from mean high tide mark to six nautical miles offshore around each of the islands and rocks. The rules and boundaries may be found at www.channelislands.noaa.gov. The other islands were not included, not because they are any less magnificent, but they are either owned by the military or already commercialized.
The underwater life offshore of these islands and rocks is exceptionally rich and diverse. The healthy food chain can be attributed to the strong upwelling that brings nutrients from deep waters to near the surface. Mix these nutrients with sunlight and the population of plankton and beds of giant kelp explode. This mass of marine plants supports the area’s numerous and diverse marine animals.
For divers the thick beds of kelp are the main attraction. Giant kelp is the fastest growing living thing on earth, sometimes growing at a rate of 1 to 2 feet per day when conditions are optimal. It forms huge beds surrounding each of the Channel Islands. This thick bed of kelp offers food for many, shelter for all, and creates a unique habitat for a diversity of marine creatures to thrive. Diving in a kelp bed is like swimming through the pillars of a Greek temple. Most divers visit the two-dimensional surface of a reef or wall, but the three dimensional experience of swimming through the dive site is mesmerizing. This is particularly true when shafts of sunlight pierce the kelp and illuminate it in shades of amber and green.
The kelp itself forms a structure for animals to live on and thrive. Red and orange kelp snails feed in the canopy along with purple ringed toped snails. As the season slips into fall, a furry growth of bryozoans covers the kelp fronds, and gives rise to another community of nudibranchs that feed on this growth. The kelp also provides sanctuary and food for schools of rockfish, crabs, mollusks and echinoderms. Abalone feed on kelp fronds that fall to the ocean floor, while urchins feed both on the fallen fronds and on the holdfasts that anchor the kelp to the bottom.
While sanctuary rules prohibit the regulation of fishing, the sanctuary managers work with the California Department of Fish and Game to create Marine Protected Areas. This is a scientifically proven method to enhance marine productivity by protecting some areas from game collecting and allowing the game to spill over into unprotected areas. The unprotected parts of the islands are great place for game hunting. Divers flock to Southern California charter dive boats for the opening of lobster season in October. Spearfishing is good throughout the year for lingcod, cabezon, sheephead, and rockfish. Abalone may no longer be taken here (you have to go north of San Francisco for that), but rock scallops are still found on pinnacles and exposed reefs.
Photographers relish the diversity of photogenic critters that thrive in the Sanctuary. One of the most common fish, and arguably the most beautiful, is the garibaldi. This is our California State Marine Fish and begins life as a tiny iridescent blue juvenile. Over time orange spots appear that gradually grow and turn the fish a bright orange. Images of the orange fish against the green and amber kelp are simply stunning.
On the rocky bottom thrive photogenic little fish such as island kelpfish, sculpins, gobies, and moray eels. The Catalina goby is particularly stunning with its gaudy purple and orange color and thrives through the Sanctuary. There are also dozens of species of rockfish, and pelagic fish such as sardines and barracuda to please the most discriminating photographer. If you are lucky you might run into one of the ocean’s true giants—the giant black sea bass. Once hunted to near extinction, these 500-pound fish are making a strong comeback and are now common on some of the Channel Islands.
The Sanctuaries’ marine mammal populations are particularly notable. Each summer humpback and blue whales feed on krill and small, schooling fish. Twice each year gray whales migrate through Sanctuary waters between their mating and calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja and their feeding grounds in the Artic. Enormous schools of common dolphins form super pods of many thousands of individuals; at times they fill the view from ship to horizon in all directions. San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands have particularly outstanding populations of pinnipeds, with large groups of California sea lions and elephant seals, and smaller groups of harbor seals, northern fur seals and occasionally Guadalupe fur seals. It is a truly memorable experience to dive with hundreds of sea lions at the rockeries of Santa Barbara or San Miguel islands. If you are lucky you might have an in water encounter with a gigantic, but curious elephant seal.
The above water scenery here is a inviting as that underwater. On Santa Cruz Island there are many large caves at the waterline and below. Some of these are huge and one, Painted Cave, is large enough to motor an 80-foot dive boat into. The submerged caves area great places to hunt for lobsters.
The waters offshore of the Channel Islands are clearly a national resource worth protecting, and the National Sanctuary System is doing a good job to preserve the marine environment for future generations. Regardless of the season you visit, or your excuse for diving, you will find a lot to love and appreciate in the Cannel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. More information may be found at www.sanctuaries.noaa.gov.