Be Winter-Ready for Your Adventure in National Marine Sanctuaries

By Anna Reilly

February 2021

Summer may feel far away but the National Marine Sanctuary System is full of adventures for every winter warrior! Whether you’re casting a line or diving into the sea, you can try your hand at a wide variety of recreational activities even in the dead of winter. While you make sure to always follow Centers for Disease Control and local guidelines for health and safety, here are some options for how you can make the most of your winter in a national marine sanctuary.

Surf's Up

Surfing a wave in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Whether it’s your first time hanging ten or your millionth time dropping in, the National Marine Sanctuary System is ready for all your surfing dreams! As the howling winter wind sends bigger waves racing to the shoreline, November through March becomes prime surfing season. Any surfer worth their salt knows the names Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Mavericks. Did you know that these world-renowned waves are crashing right inside of America’s ocean parks? Surfing legends brave these 20-, 30-, 40-foot waves (and bigger!) every winter just to have a chance at experiencing the rides of their lives. Waters in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary are open to anyone adventurous enough to paddle out, but be warned: these waves are ridden by experts for a reason.

If you’re not a professional surfer, don’t be discouraged! There are a wide range of manageable breaks for surfers of every skill level on and offshore of both coasts in the national marine sanctuaries. Even the Great Lakes are open to winter surfing, including Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, though we do recommend wearing your warmest wetsuit if you venture into those waters. Especially during the large winter swells, anyone paddling out should familiarize themselves with the tides, dominant currents, and meteorological conditions of the surf spot to ensure they have a safe and unforgettable surf session.

On the Water

Visitors watching a whale and birds in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

You can enjoy some of the best experiences in the sanctuaries by venturing out on the water. Explore the mysteries of the deep from above and peer down at historical shipwrecks and colorful fish as you paddle through sanctuary waters on a kayak, canoe, or paddle board.

Anglers can also catch a wide variety of fish during the winter months throughout the sanctuary system, including pompano, cobia, lingcod, rockfish, and more, all depending on your location. Another incredible experience out on the water that is suitable for all ages is whale watching. Humpback whales in particular can be found in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary during the winter as they migrate, and spectators out on the waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary could have a chance to see gray whales. Getting out on the water and seeing shipwrecks up close, reeling in a catch, and seeing a whale breach are all unforgettable memories you can make this winter in sanctuary waters.

Along the Shoreline

Visitors exploring the tide pools in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Sara Heintzelman/NOAA

With the sun shining down on the sand, the beautiful views of the sanctuaries are sure to take your breath away. You can make your stroll along sanctuary shorelines even more enjoyable by exploring the various hiking trails available, such as the ones managed by Channel Islands National Park, adjacent to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Pack a lunch and you can enjoy a meal with a view at one of the many picnic areas.

All of your national marine sanctuaries are teeming with life, and it is likely that you will encounter some wildlife during your visit. Make sure to bring your binoculars so you can spot egrets, snowy plovers, or a variety of other seabirds. If you’re really lucky, you might even see turtles, seals, whales, or other animals in the water or up on the beach. If you do come across any wildlife during your visit, remember to always follow wildlife viewing guidelines by making sure to give the animals plenty of room, keeping pets on a leash, and reporting any injured, sick, or stranded wildlife.

When the tide goes out, there are even more ways for you to see wildlife along the shoreline. The rocky intertidal zones of Olympic Coast, Monterey Bay, Greater Farallones, and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries feature tidepools full of sea stars, anemones, crabs, urchins, limpets, and more. Many of the critters found in tidepools are specially adapted to live in these extreme environments, and are fascinating to observe and learn about. As always, remember to treat these organisms with care and respect, and leave the beach or tidepool the way you found it!

Diving In

Diver exploring a kelp forest in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nathan Coy

You can get a front-row seat to the wonders of the sea by diving deep or staying shallow in the waters of your national marine sanctuaries. Don your winter dive gear or grab a snorkel, and explore reefs, shipwrecks, and other gems hiding just below the surface. Dare to go deeper? Scuba divers can sink down to even more adventures and explore kelp forests in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and sea caves in Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary. Several sanctuaries also feature heritage trails that can lead you to discover hidden treasures of our nation’s maritime history, such as World War II shipwrecks near Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and the shipwreck trail in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. You might even come face to face with a variety of wildlife during your dive, including gray whales, common squids, dolphins, turtles, and so much more. Always remember to follow responsible wildlife viewing guidelines to protect both yourself and the animals you encounter.

Just as with surfing, it’s important to know the local weather conditions before you dive in the water. While waters in Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries stay warm enough to dive comfortably in the winter, underwater visibility may be reduced due to seasonal weather conditions (e.g., wind and currents). Conversely, waters in Southern and Central California show improved visibility in the winter, but the waves are cold and weather conditions can make seas too rough to dive. To ensure you have the safest and most successful winter diving experience, make sure you prepare ahead of time and are familiar with local forecasts and visibility levels. A thicker wetsuit with a hood and gloves, or even a dry suit, is recommended in most locations during the winter months.

Online Adventures

Person viewing one of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ virtual reality/360 images. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Even if you can’t come visit us in person this winter, you can still bring a piece of the sanctuaries home through a variety of online resources! You can dive in without even getting wet by checking out our 360 virtual dive gallery. Through our immersive virtual reality videos, you can watch sea lions swim through a kelp forest, explore sunken shipwrecks, help restore a coral reef, and check out other unique treasures hidden under the waves right from your home. Then, increase your ocean knowledge through our free educational webinar series. You can hear from experts in the field and explore topics including Hawaiian spiritual connections to the ocean, exploring the modern threats to marine mammals, and many more fascinating discussions. You can learn even more through the 2020 Get Into Your Sanctuary Weekend webinar series, including fishing tips, a chef’s best lionfish recipe, and so much more.

diver swimming through a wreck
Join your dive buddies on a visit to D.M. Wilson, one of the hundreds of shipwrecks protected in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, located in Lake Huron. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA
Green sea turtle just below the surface
Come along and explore with green sea turtles (honu) as they take you around Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Keep up to date with all things sanctuaries year round by following us on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Through a photo each day and a video each week, our Earth is Blue campaign will show you the incredible wildlife and jaw-dropping views that make America’s underwater parks so special. Have some excellent photos of your adventures in the National Marine Sanctuary System you’d like to share with the world? You can submit your photos to the Earth is Blue campaign at any time!

No matter where you are or what time of year it is, your national marine sanctuaries are ready for all your ideas of adventure. We hope to see you soon!

Anna Reilly is a volunteer communications intern at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and is an undergraduate student at Boston College.