Seaweed blenny swimming in a reef

Seaweed blenny, Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

Faraway Ocean: A Journey into Distant Sanctuaries

by Elizabeth Weinberg

What is a sanctuary? Is it a safe haven for the vulnerable? A tranquil place to find calm? A view inspiring awe and beauty? A jumping-off point for adventures?

The sites of the National Marine Sanctuary System are all of these things. In the calm waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary you'll find humpback whales peacefully raising their young, while in the waves of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary you'll find surfers testing their limits. Sanctuaries are places where you can experience the serenity of an ocean sunset and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing a giant sea bass pop out from behind a curtain of kelp.

Octopus, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: OET/NOAA
blue whales swimming
Blue whales, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jess Morten/NOAA

Some of these ocean and Great Lakes treasures are easier to get to than others. To witness the kaleidoscope of color of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, for example, you have to get offshore and have the skill as a technical diver to make it to the sanctuary's deep-water pinnacles. To fish at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, you need the means and the time to get 19 miles off the coast of Georgia. But these sanctuaries belong to everyone, and protecting them means keeping them near and dear to the hearts of people all over the country and the world.

With that in mind, we turned to the people who know them best so you, too, can experience these jewels.

sea otter swimming in a kelp forest
A sea lion dives through the kelp forest at Santa Barbara Island in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Curtis Wee

A Whole New Sanctuary

Even if you've visited sanctuaries a hundred or a thousand times, everything's a little bit different with each encounter. Todd Recicar, research vessel captain for Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, describes diving in the sanctuary this way: "Sometimes the excitement of diving in the sanctuary is not knowing when you jump in the water what the visibility is going to be like on the bottom." A diver might get an expansive view of live-bottom reef, or instead be inspired to focus on the small details just in front of them.

coral reef with fish swimming around
Invertebrates and fish in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

Greg McFall, manager of the NOAA Diving Program, echoes this sense of variability. "What you might see when you go out to the sanctuary in February will be completely different - different organisms, different abundances - in the summer," he says. In the winter, cold waters and storm-driven waves scour the reef, and a tubeworm called sea frost carpets the sanctuary. But in the summer, the water warms to subtropical temperatures, bringing in sponges, sea stars, and more that thrive and cover the rocky ledges in this area off the coast of Georgia. Thanks to McFall, too, you don't have to be a diver to experience this transformation: his photographs have brought this offshore sanctuary to life for people all over the world.

divers on a boat preping their gear for a dive
Divers prepare to enter the water at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jody Patterson/NOAA
belted sandfish and a juvenile fish
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary protects creatures like belted sandfish. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

In some places within the National Marine Sanctuary System, the mystery is even deeper and darker. The borders of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary begin six miles offshore, and while the sanctuary's rich waters support an astonishing array of life, it's challenging to get to. The closest port is Bodega Bay, which sanctuary education and outreach coordinator Jennifer Stock explains is often referred to as "Blow-dega" for its unpredictable winds. And Cordell Bank itself, a rocky underwater feature, is far beneath the surface.

Cordell Bank rises from the continental shelf, with small pinnacles reaching to within 115 feet of the ocean surface. When you're diving, explains maritime archaeologist Joe Hoyt, you have to position yourself carefully so you don't miss the bank. Hoyt is one of the few people to have dived down to the bank, and he describes it as having a "shocking palate of color. It's confusing, because it looks almost tropical because it's so bright, but it's cold, and you're in Northern California. It's disorienting." Here, in the nourishing waters of the California Current, invertebrates like hydrocorals and strawberry anemones abound, giving Cordell Bank a technicolor glow. The area also serves as a rockfish nursery. McFall explains there are so many rockfish that "if your dive buddy is more than four feet away from you, you can't see them."

New technologies are enabling scientists to investigate never-before-seen parts of national marine sanctuaries, too. In Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a 2016 research expedition on board the E/V Nautilus discovered evidence of past sea levels and shorelines. These discoveries have changed the narrative around the natural history of California's Channel Islands and informed future expeditions, explains sanctuary education and outreach team lead Julie Bursek. And in Cordell Bank, Nautilus's deep-sea expeditions investigated areas too deep for divers to go. Researchers saw species they'd never seen before, or never seen in that region. Now, explains Stock, it's as if "we have a whole new sanctuary to be talking about and describing to people."

a diver places a specimen in a collection bag
A diver places a specimen in a collection bag in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Joe Hoyt/NOAA

An Unexpected Treat

Whether you live in a landlocked state or wake up each morning along the coastline, sanctuaries have something for you. Visiting their shores or adventuring on the water, or even just jumping in through virtual reality and social media, you can find true connection – with family, with friends, and most of all, with wildlife.

While it's important to give animals in and outside of sanctuaries plenty of space to live healthy lives, sometimes marine creatures are curious and bold enough to forge connections with divers and other visitors. While on a science expedition to Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, the sun suddenly was blocked out above Greg McFall. It was a manta ray, he says, "literally on top of my head." After puzzling over its behavior for a moment, he realized the manta seemed to want him to scare off a remora that was clinging to it. "So I reached up and scared the remora away and the manta ray just took off like a shot," he says, and the remora zoomed off after it. "It came back and did that five more times," with the remora reattached each time, "so we played that game for a while."

In Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Julie Bursek had a similar experience while surveying giant sea bass habitat off Anacapa Island. "All the sudden out of the murk a large sea bass appeared, and then another, and then another, and another," she describes. "Before I knew it I was surrounded by nine giant sea bass, just circling around me." Sanctuaries are sites for curiosity and connection – for animals as much as for humans.

dolphin swimming near the surface
A common dolphin splashes at the surface in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: John Burke

To Bursek, visiting Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary "is a spiritual journey as well as an emotional journey." The trip offshore to these Southern California islands takes visitors alongside bowriding dolphins and spouting blue whales, and the kelp forests are like a whole new world. Being above the waves in sanctuaries can be as magical as the world beneath the surface.

Joe Hoyt encountered the beauty of sanctuaries above the surface after a technical dive in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. "Normally when you get out of the water after a technical dive, the quickest thing you want to do is sit down and take the gear off," he says. But after one dive, a blue whale was feeding right off the starboard side of the research vessel. "Everybody was still in their heavy gear and they ran to the rail like little kids – a bunch of dudes having the time of their lives. It was an unexpected treat."

Peace and Harmony

Places like National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa are "surreal," with "nature and culture in harmony with one another," says acting sanctuary superintendent Atuatasi-Lelei Peau. It "really is heaven, with peace and harmony."

Still, these ocean jewels are at risk. Jennifer Stock was on the E/V Nautilus when researchers explored the deep waters of Cordell Bank in 2017. During the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) descent, "I was kind of squirming, I was so excited," she says. But when the ROV reached the seafloor, "the very first thing we saw was a plastic water bottle. My heart sank. We can't get away from this plastic intrusion on our planet."

monke seal pup on the beach next to some plastic
Marine debris in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: James Watt/NOAA
a water bouy washed up on the beach
Marine debris in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA

For Joe Hoyt, preserving the value of sanctuaries all comes down to protection. These ecosystems are fragile and we have to care for them, he says, "while also understanding that these places have value for people." Those two things don't have to be in conflict. For example, because Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary "is protected and managed and considered special, you have this place where juvenile rockfish grow, then move off and support a fishing industry elsewhere."

The National Marine Sanctuary System belongs to all of us. The word "sanctuary" connotes different things to different people, but universally, it brings to mind protection. Sanctuaries protect our natural and cultural resources – and it behooves us to protect them in turn.