Eight Fantastic Places to Paddle in Your National Marine Sanctuary System

By Juliette Lee

August 2017

For those who love nature and outdoor activities, the National Marine Sanctuary System offers exciting adventures. Whether it's paddling on the waves, reeling in salmon, exploring tide pools, or admiring wildlife, there is no more spectacular place to enjoy the ocean and Great Lakes and the outdoors. Canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding provide participants with a unique, interactive avenue to experience all that national marine sanctuaries have to offer! Each site invites a new adventure, with paddling opportunities readily available and accessible from shore at most sanctuary locations for all skillsets.

Many outfitters rent equipment, offer guided trips, and teach introductory classes for a variety of paddle sports. As with any outdoor sport, safety is always the top priority. Novice paddlers should stick to calm, protected areas, rather than venturing into the ocean. It is always a great idea start with a guided trip where a novice will not only acquire basic skills, but can learn about the wildlife they will encounter. Depending on where you're paddling, it is important to check tides and learn about the safest routes, and allow for changing current, tide, and weather conditions.


Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

recreational kayakers pose for a photo aboard their kayaks
Recreational kayakers say hello to the camera at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Magen Schifiliti

Every year from November to May, up to 12,000 humpback whales return to the Hawaiian Islands. From a safe distance, paddlers can watch these acrobatic, 40-ton marine mammals surface, breach, or slap their massive tails and flippers. Paddle in the morning when the ocean is calmest for a chance to see the magnificent whales of this marine sanctuary.

To protect whales and ensure human safety, regulations prohibit all ocean users from approaching within 100 yards of humpback whales throughout the Hawaiian Islands. All paddlers should follow ocean etiquette guidelines, which ask ocean users not to chase, closely approach, surround, swim with, or attempt to touch the majestic whales. Equipment can be rented from kayak and paddleboard outfitters, which are located on all of the islands. The paddle sport outfitters are great places to ask for the wave and wind conditions for the day to ensure a safe excursion.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

three paddleboarders on the water at sunset
Stand-up paddleboarders enjoy a sunset at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Stephanie Gandulla/NOAA

Northern Lake Huron's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has a diverse and beautiful shoreline that presents abundant opportunities to paddle along beaches, unusual rock formations, beyond historic lighthouses, and along quiet rivers. The sanctuary covers 4,300 square miles of northwestern Lake Huron, and is the only national marine sanctuary located in fresh water. It contains the some of the nation's best-preserved historic shipwrecks, icons of our Great Lakes maritime heritage. Many of these wrecks can be viewed from glass bottom boats, when diving or snorkeling, and from a stand-up paddleboard.

Several outfitters and tour companies provide services out of Alpena, Michigan, so you don't need to own your own gear to explore the shipwrecks and natural splendor. The sanctuary is also part of the Huron Shores Heritage Route, a 200-mile water trail from just inside the Straits of Mackinac down to Tawas Bay. 

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

two kayakers paddle through the mangroves
An eco-tour paddles through the mangroves of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Kayaks, canoes, and and stand-up paddleboards glide silently over the shallowest seagrass beds and through the narrowest, canopied mangrove tunnels. Paddlers in the Florida Keys can get much closer to fish and wildlife, but be careful not to get too close to marine mammals or sea turtles, and don't disturb roosting birds. The Florida Keys backcountry islands and bays are a great place to find sheltered water in any wind and the mangrove fringed islands hold many different types of wildlife.

Though solo paddling can be satisfying, having a buddy is always a good idea while out on the water. If you're unfamiliar with the area you may be paddling in, hiring a local guide greatly improves the experience by providing local knowledge and professional instruction. There are many shops and hotels in the Keys that will rent equipment by the hour or day so visitors can explore independently; many also offer private or group tours. Plus, some outfitters offer marine debris cleanups so you can help support a healthy sanctuary.

Know your abilities and stay within them when going paddling. In addition to tides and currents being hard to predict at a specific location, visitors should be aware that weather can change rapidly and unexpectedly within the waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Stay up to date about the latest weather by carrying a VHF radio or cell phone, or use a larger boat as a "mothership" while exploring deeper into the Florida Keys backcountry.

Proposed Mallows Bay–Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary

view of the sunset from a kayak
A kayaker takes in the sunset at the proposed Mallows Bay - Potomac River sanctuary. Photo: Kim Hernandez/Maryland Department of Natural Resources

The proposed Mallows Bay–Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, which is located about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., is in the process of being designated as a national marine sanctuary and offers unique opportunities via kayak or paddleboard. Visitors can launch from Mallows Bay Park and relax within this largely undeveloped landscape to view abundant wildlife, including blue heron, bald eagles and osprey.  Time your paddle to coincide with low tide for the best view of the "Ghost Fleet," the remains of more than 100 World War I-era wooden steamships!

To enhance the visitor experience, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation have developed a digital story map that identifies three water trails and interprets some of the most prominent vessel remains. These three trails are generally within more tranquil waters, although portions of one is adjacent to the main channel of the Potomac River where paddlers may be challenged by currents, waves, and motor boat traffic. Mallows Bay is also one spot along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

When on water trails, paddlers are cautioned about the metal and wooden remains  both above and just below the water surface near the shipwrecks. Please respect these special heritage resources and the wildlife. Paddlers are always encouraged to check local weather and water conditions in Nanjemoy, Maryland, prior to departure. Kayak rentals and guided tours are available in the area.


Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

kayakers entering a sea cave
Kayakers explore a sea cave in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

The end of summer in California's Channel Islands is the perfect time to visit because of the calm winds and seas. While paddling in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, you can see blue, fin, and sei whales, feeding on krill from the nutrient rich, upwelled water. Plus, visitors can spend from half a day to an entire day exploring the sea caves and Scorpion Anchorage off of Santa Cruz Island.

Visitors may paddle on their own but dangerous sea conditions can occur at any time of year so it is advised to paddle with an authorized guide. With a knowledgeable guide, adventure awaits!

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

kayakers posing for a photo
Team OCEAN volunteers serve as on-the-water docents in sanctuary kayaks. Photo: Matt Stout/NOAA

Teeming with wildlife, Monterey Bay's kelp forests and the placid wetlands of Elkhorn Slough are ideal places to paddle. Float quietly and look closely and you may see crabs, jellies, or other small animals. Brown pelicans, cormorants, loons, grebes, and other fish-eating birds are commonly seen diving for prey, and huge numbers of shorebirds stop over in the slough during migration. Visitors are also likely to see harbor seals, sea lions, or sea otters.

Wild animals are easily frightened, which can jeopardize their health through elevated stress and altered feeding behavior. Keep a safe distance, approximately 100 yards, for responsible wildlife viewing.

Visitors can paddle by themselves and rent kayaks from a number of outfitters in Monterey, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and San Simeon. But sanctuary staff advise paddlers to always visit a kayak outfitter first. Kayak vendors not only offer guided trips, but they know where the safest places are, can give novice paddlers some safety tips and teach them where to get in and out of the water, and give visitors a map of the area. When going out to paddle, it is important to be informed about weather conditions for the day. Keep an eye out for the helpful Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Team OCEAN volunteers who serve as on-the-water docents in sanctuary kayaks, providing interpretation on respectful wildlife viewing while helping to protect marine mammals from disturbance.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

Kayakers watch the sunset
Kayakers watch the sunset in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Sara Heintzelman/NOAA

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary encompasses many amazing habitats to explore by paddle power. Some excellent choices include Tomales Bay, Bolinas Lagoon, the esteros Americano and San Antonio, and the Russian River estuary. But there are also many quiet coves up and down the coast. For more experienced paddlers, there are abundant beaches and coastlines accessible for ocean kayaking, stand up paddling, and surfing. But be warned: the coast is famous for its “sneaker” waves and strong rips, so always check for high surf warnings and other safety alerts before going. Be sure to buddy-up, and file a float plan with someone on shore. Reminder: be aware of local regulations, private property and other restrictions at all paddle sites.

You can launch your own kayak or paddleboard in numerous locations in San Francisco, Stinson Beach, Jenner, Marshall, Sausalito, and Half Moon Bay. Safety should always be the number one priority, so if you're a new paddler, sanctuary staff recommend you start with a guided trip. The Sanctuary Explorations program at Greater Farallones leads several kayak or paddle sport trips each year, in partnership with local recreational outfitters. For adventurous children, a Marine Explorers summer camp is offered for eight- to 12-year-olds.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is renowned for its coastal wildlife, including seabirds, seals, and even nearshore whales! Carry binoculars and follow other Seabird Protection Network tips so you can enjoy wildlife without disturbing them.


Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

An elite kayaker takes on the strong currents
An elite kayaker takes on the strong currents at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Carey Floyd/NOAA

Over 3 million visitors discover the Olympic Peninsula each year, attracted by beautiful scenery, pristine wilderness, the spectacle of wildlife, and the opportunity to challenge themselves in a natural environment. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary forms the western edge of this wonderland, sharing 73 miles of coastline with Olympic National Park.

The sanctuary provides abundant challenges for expert sea kayakers. Extreme conditions (that can change in the blink of an eye!) make this environment truly exceptional -- and dangerous. Sanctuary staff urge paddlers to monitor conditions before they depart, to know weather, tides, and currents and, above all, to exercise caution in this extreme and remote environment. Kayak outfitters in Port Angeles will rent to visitors only after assessing their skill levels within the dynamic and potentially dangerous coastline.

Paddle Activities during Get Into Your Sanctuary Day

Get into your sanctuary day logo

Check out the paddle opportunities during our national Get Into Your Sanctuary celebration. This nationwide event raises awareness about the value of national marine sanctuaries as places for responsible recreation through a series of special events - including kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding."