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Celebrating 20 Years at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

By Samantha Clevenger

Picture a place where orcas breach above the sunken wrecks of 19th-century ships, and sea otters frolic among kelp forests while bald eagles soar through the skies. That place is Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its designation as a national marine sanctuary this month.

Designated on July 22, 1994, the sanctuary covers 3,310 square miles of waters — about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined — off Washington state's rugged and beautiful Olympic Peninsula coastline. The sanctuary protects diverse wildlife from whales to seabirds to brilliantly colored sea slugs, but it is also rich in cultural resources, with over 150 documented historical shipwrecks and a deep connection to the vibrant contemporary cultures of the Quinault Indian Nation and Makah, Quileute and Hoh Indian tribes.

An Aquatic Eden

The sanctuary extends 25 to 50 miles seaward from the shore, covering much of the continental shelf and several major submarine canyons. The Olympic Coast is an “upwelling zone,” where the wind blowing parallel to the coast allows warm surface water to be replaced with cooler, nutrient-rich water from the depths, creating ideal conditions for abundant marine life.

The sanctuary’s diverse ecosystems support 29 species of marine mammals, some of the most robust fish populations in the world, and a plethora of seabirds, invertebrates, and marine plants like giant kelp. The incredible biological richness in this area provides plenty of opportunities to conduct groundbreaking scientific research and to educate the public about the underwater world.

starfish gathered in a tidepool

Starfish gathered in a tidepool. Photo courtesy of Nancy Sefton.

Steeped in History

Centuries before the first European ships set sail to North America, the four Olympic Coast tribes — Hoh, Makah, and Quileute Tribes, and the Quinault Indian Nation — already had an intimate relationship with these waters. Today, the importance of that relationship is respected by a legislative framework establishing rights to the sanctuary for the original inhabitants, supported by ongoing dialogue through the Intergovernmental Policy Council and the sanctuary advisory council.

cannonball island, onms

Cannonball Island. Photo courtesy of Robert Steelquist.

In the time between the re-discovery of the Olympic Coast by European explorers and the designation as a national marine sanctuary, the West Coast developed economically and with that development came an influx of ships. Today, the wreckage of more than 150 of these vessels can be found strewn about the underwater landscape. These wrecks serve as a large pull for the over 3 million yearly visitors to the Olympic Coast.

For more information about Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, visit

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Revised September 12, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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