Site History and Resources
Designated in 1994, the sanctuary's mission is to protect the Olympic Coast's natural and cultural resources through responsible stewardship, to conduct and apply research to preserve the area's ecological integrity and maritime heritage, and to promote understanding through public outreach and education.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary spans 8,572 square kilometers (3,310 square miles) of marine waters off Washington state's rugged Olympic Peninsula coast (Figure 1). Extending seaward 40 to 72 kilometers (25 to 45 miles), the sanctuary covers much of the continental shelf and the heads of three major submarine canyons, in places reaching a maximum depth of over 1,400 meters (4,500 feet). The sanctuary borders an undeveloped coastline, enhancing protection provided by the 90-kilometer-long (56-mile) wilderness of the Olympic National Park's coastal strip, as well as more than 600 offshore islands and emergent rocks within the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuges. Superimposed on a nutrient-rich upwelling zone with high primary productivity and composed of a multitude of marine habitats, the sanctuary is home to numerous marine mammals and seabirds, diverse populations of kelp and other macroalgae, and diverse fish and invertebrate communities.
GeologyThe Olympic Coast is subject to tectonic forces caused by the combined movements of the large Pacific and North American Plates and the smaller Juan de Fuca Plate. The Juan de Fuca Plate and the Pacific Plate are spreading away from each other at a divergent plate boundary offshore, while the Juan de Fuca plate is being pressed toward and beneath the North American Plate (Figure 2). These forces are linked to a chain of volcanoes within the uplifted Cascade Range. The geologic activity in the area off the Olympic Coast gives rise to potential hazards such as earthquakes and associated submarine landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Tsunamis, long-period sea waves produced by submarine earthquakes or volcanoes, occasionally strike the Washington coast. The Alaskan earthquake of 1964 produced a tsunamithat reached a height of almost 15 feet (4.5 meters) on the Washington coast south of the sanctuary.
A continental shelf reaches out from Washington's coast from 13 to 64 kilometers (8 to 40 miles), and provides a relatively shallow (200 meters or 660 feet in depth or less) coastal environment within the sanctuary. Several submarine canyons cut into the continental shelf along the western boundary of the sanctuary, and the trough of the Juan de Fuca Canyon winds through the northern portion of the sanctuary towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In the northern portion of the sanctuary, the sediments on the shelf are largely glacial deposits from the Ice Age, and the shelf slope is steep and jagged. Modern sediments are carried west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and north from the Columbia River. These materials are generally transported northward by year-round bottom currents and winter storms, and eventually accumulate on the shelf. The majority of the sanctuary seafloor, however, has not yet been adequately mapped or characterized, so a full understanding of sediments and habitat distribution remains elusive (Intelmann 2006).
Broad beaches, dunes, and ridges dominate the coastline from Cape Disappointment, on the north side of the Columbia River mouth, to the Hoh River. Wave action has eroded the shoreline through time and has formed steep cliffs at various places along the coast (Figure 3), and forested hills and sloping terraces are found near river mouths. Between Point Grenville and Cape Flattery, cliffs can rise abruptly 15 to 90 meters (50 to 300 feet) above a wave-cut platform that is underwater except during extreme low tides. This wave-cut platform can be almost three kilometers (2 miles) wide in some places. Small islands, sea stacks, and rocks dot the platform's surface.
Original Peoples and European ExplorationThe Olympic Coast has sustained human communities for at least 6,000 years and possibly much longer. Native American villages were located at protected harbors and river mouths where people practiced ocean and river-dependent hunting, gathering, fishing and whaling activities (Figure 4). As they are today, Native Americans were among the top or apex predators in the marine ecosystem.
Artifacts from one prehistoric site, the Ozette archaeological site near Cape Alava, provide a window into the daily life of that culture immediately before European contact. Clever tools made from natural materials developed from their intimate relationship with natural resources, and complex artwork and rich oral traditions demonstrate the sophistication of these Native American societies. Recent research on earlier sites confirms maritime-adapted cultural practices of offshore fishing and whaling dating at least 4,000 years before present. Today, the Makah, Quileute and Hoh tribes and Quinault Indian Nation carry their heritage forward, balancing the very modern needs of their communities with long traditions. As provided in their treaties with the United States government, treaty tribes share fishery resources with non-tribal residents, and tribes are active as co-managers of the fisheries.
Coastal Tribes of the outer coast of Washington - (from south to north)
The Quinault Indian Nation consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes. The Quinault Indian Reservation, located in the southwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, includes 37 kilometers (23 miles) of Pacific coastline and covers 84,271 hectares (208,150 acres) of forested land.
The Hoh Reservation consists of 179 hectares (443 acres) located 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Forks at the mouth of the Hoh River. The reservation has about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) of beachfront between the mouth of the Hoh River and Ruby Beach.
Surrounded on three sides by the Olympic National Park, the Quileute Reservation is located on 451 hectares (1,115 acres) along the Pacific Ocean and on the south banks of the Quillayute River and includes the town of LaPush.
Located in the northwestern most corner of the contiguous U.S., the Makah Reservation consists of 11,007 hectares (27,200 acres) and is bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It includes the town of Neah Bay. Over 405 hectares (1,000 acres) of the land bordering the Pacific Ocean have been reserved as a wilderness area. The Makah are part of the Nootkan culture group, which includes two other tribes in British Columbia, Canada.
In 1592, Juan de Fuca, a pilot on a Spanish ship, told mariner's tales of visiting a Northwest Passage that emptied into the Pacific Ocean. For the next 200 years, Spain, England, France and Russia all sent explorers to confirm his report and lay claim to the region and its riches. De Fuca's visit was never confirmed, however his name was preserved on later English maps and the passage is now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Figure 1).
In 1778, the English explorer Captain James Cook sailed the coast. In 1788, another English sea captain, John Meares, was so impressed by Mount Olympus that he named it after the mythical home of the Greek gods. "If that be not the home where dwell the Gods, it is beautiful enough to be, and I therefore call it Mount Olympus," he wrote. The name was made official 14 years later when Captain George Vancouver entered the name on his maps and referred to the whole range as the Olympic Mountains. Although the Spanish built the first European settlement near Neah Bay in 1792, Spanish influence was short-lived. The settlement was abandoned after only five months when Spain came under the threat of war from Great Britain.
Furs were the key to opening the northwest coast to European trade in the late 1700s, especially profitable sea otter pelts that were obtained from the Indians by English, Russian, Spanish and American fur traders. As the news spread of the great profits to be had in fur trading, sea otter populations dwindled and by the early 1900s, sea otters had been extirpated from Washington waters (Figure 5).
Through the latter part of the 1800s, pioneers moved into the Olympic Peninsula to farm, fish, and cut timber. Like Native Americans, most early settlers chose to settle along the coast. In 1851, Port Townsend became the first permanent American settlement on the peninsula, providing a gateway for further settlements to the west (Figure 6). Port Angeles, with its harbor, lighthouse, military reservation, customs house, and strategic location on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was designated by President Abraham Lincoln as a town site in 1862.
Today, it is the peninsula's largest town, with a population of 18,400 (in 2000). Farther west, the town of Forks had European settlers as early as the 1860s. People were originally drawn to Forks for gold prospects, but timber became the mainstay of the economy of Forks and other west end towns. Fishing continues to be an important commercial and recreational venture for coastal communities like Neah Bay and La Push.
Although the area attracted logging, farming and fishing interests, the rugged western coast and interior of the peninsula retain significant roadless wilderness. Olympic National Park was established in 1938 and now includes nearly a million acres of mountain, forest, and coastline designated as wilderness. The coastal strip of the park was added in 1953. The Olympic National Forest was designated in 1897 as the Olympic Forest Reserve and now contains 88,265 acres (15 percent of the total national forest acreage) of designated wilderness.
Throughout the period of European settlement on the western Olympic Peninsula, the link between the land and the ocean has shaped history. All coastal trade vessels working between California and Puget Sound, as well as vessels visiting the region for trans-Pacific trade, traversed the area that is now the sanctuary. The lumber trade on the Pacific Coast was a long-lived and very significant aspect of maritime trade along the coast. Beginning in the 1850s with the establishment of sawmills on Puget Sound and environs, larger vessels, many of them veterans of the California Gold Rush, commenced the trade. Early canneries, logging operations and hotels reflected not just the economic opportunities offered by coastal resources, but the hardships imposed by the Olympic Coast's remoteness, such as lack of or limited road transport. Coast-wide trade linked the productive Olympic Peninsula with Seattle and markets in California, Hawaii, Australia and beyond. In addition, the completion of railroad links across the Continental Divide in both Canada and the United States made the ports of Vancouver, Seattle, Everett, Tacoma and Victoria important sources of grain, timber, gold and other resources for the world's economy.
Today, commerce on the Olympic coast still depends largely on commercial and recreational fishing, logging and tourism. In recent years, the local timber industry and the fishing industries have both been impacted by reduced harvests, and the local economy has struggled. Coastal communities continue to respond to a changing economy by developing innovative enterprises such as value-added wood product manufacturing (local manufacturing rather than export of raw timber) and accommodating the growth of tourism to diversify the economic base.
The Washington outer coast is known for its rough seas and large waves — extreme wave heights ranging from 15 to 27 meters (50 to 90 feet) have been recorded on and beyond the continental shelf. Winter storms travel across the fetch of the Pacific and the energy is magnified as they encounter the shallower continental shelf, where their force pounds the coast with gathered intensity.
Surface winds generated by atmospheric pressure systems are the main force driving ocean surface circulation off the Pacific Northwest. Spring and summer winds blow generally toward the south and push surface waters southward and offshore. This results in nearshore upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface (Figure 7). This influx of nutrients enhances plankton communities that are ultimately responsible for the region’s productive fisheries. Downwelling tends to occur in the fall and winter months, when the winds blow generally toward the north and surface water is forced shoreward (Oregon Sea Grant 1997). Other physical features also play a role in these movements: Shelf platform width, river plumes, submarine canyons, banks, coastal promontories and offshore eddies influence the retention, magnitude and timing of nutrient delivery to plankton, and may explain why primary productivity is higher along the Washington coast than the Oregon coast (Hickey and Banas 2003).
On a regional scale, the California current transports cold subarctic water southward along the Washington coast, directly influencing the local distribution of marine organisms. The California Current generally occurs from the continental shelf break to a distance of about 1,000 kilometers from shore and rides above the narrower California Undercurrent, which flows northward and is implicated in the transport of larvae and other plankton. The California Current and Undercurrent are strongest in the summer, while the seasonal, nearshore Davidson current flows northward during winter months when the Columbia River plume is transported along the Washington coast. Another seasonal feature is the Juan de Fuca Eddy, which is approximately 50 kilometers in diameter, persists in summertime, and entrains nutrient-rich cold water in a counterclockwise circulation pattern.
Oceanographic and atmospheric events across the Pacific basin influence the waters of the Olympic Coast. For example, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is primarily driven by sea surface temperatures along the Equatorial Pacific Ocean and is a major source of inter-annual climate variability in the Pacific Northwest, with events lasting 6 to 18 months. Similarly, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is a predominant source of climate variability in the Pacific Northwest, where warm or cool phases can each last 20 to 30 years. Climatic cycles such as these are natural events and often are associated with strong fluctuations in weather patterns and biological resources.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary contains a broad diversity of habitats including rocky shores, sandy beaches, kelp forests, sea stacks and islands, open ocean or pelagic habitats, the continental shelf seafloor and submarine canyons. Along the shoreline, tide pools are formed amid boulders and rocky outcrops that provide both temporary and permanent homes for an abundance of “seaweeds” (e.g., macroalgae and seagrasses), invertebrate species such as sea stars, hermit crabs, and sea anemones, and intertidal fish. Rocky shores of the Olympic Coast have among the highest biodiversity of marine invertebrates and macroalgae of all eastern Pacific coastal sites from Central America to Alaska (Suchanek 1979; PISCO 2002; Blanchette et al. in press). Nestled between these rocky headlands are numerous sand-covered pocket beaches that host their unique array of intertidal invertebrates and fishes.
Kelp forests form dense stands in nearshore waters, with individual plants reaching up to 20 meters in length (Figure 8). The structure of this living habitat alters the physical forces (waves and currents) in the nearshore area and creates a protective environment for fish and invertebrates, from their holdfast bases on the seafloor to their canopies at the surface. Sea otters often raft and rest in and near kelp canopies, while many species and ages of fish find protective habitat among the kelp forests.
Pinnacles (sea stacks) and islands along the coast also provide havens and resting sites for California and Steller sea lions, harbor and elephant seals, and thousands of nesting seabirds. High-relief submerged topographic features such as rock piles serve as fish aggregation areas.
A majority of the sanctuary lies over the continental shelf, extending from the nearshore to the shelf break at about the 200-meter contour. The shelf is composed primarily of soft sediment and glacial deposits of cobble, gravel and boulders, punctuated by rock outcrops, and it is inhabited by creatures such as flatfish, rockfish, octopuses, brittle stars and sea pens that have adapted to the darkness, cold, and pressure of the seafloor. Sanctuary boundaries extend beyond the edge of the continental shelf and include portions of the Nitinat, Juan de Fuca, and Quinault submarine canyons (Figure 1). The Quinault canyon is the deepest, descending to 1,420 meters (4,660 feet) at its deepest point within the sanctuary. Many creatures, such as corals, sponges, crinoids, rockfish and shrimp, inhabit these areas of physical extremes. The canyons are also dynamic areas where massive submarine landslides can occur on the steep side walls, undetected by man, and canyon bottoms collect sediment deposited from above. They also serve as conduits for dense, cold, nutrient-rich seawater that is pulled toward shore, where upwelling feeds surface productivity at the base of the food web.
Recent surveys conducted in offshore shelf and canyon habitats have confirmed the presence of hard-bottom substrates that harbor rich invertebrate assemblages, including deepwater coral and sponges (Brancato et al. 2007). Such fauna are commonly thought to be restricted to shallow tropical waters. However, an increasing number of studies around the world have recorded coral and sponge assemblages in deeper, cold-water habitats at both northern and southern latitudes. These living organisms with branching, upright structure are, in turn, habitat themselves for other invertebrates and fish (Whitmire and Clarke 2007). Habitat-forming corals and sponges provide hiding places, attachment sites, food sources, and breeding and nursery grounds in relatively inhospitable and otherwise featureless environments (Figure 9).
Twenty-nine species of marine mammals have been sighted in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, including eight species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Two species are frequent foragers in the sanctuary: the humpback whale and the killer whale (also called orca) (Figure 10). Gray whales, which were recently removed from the endangered species list, travel through the sanctuary on their annual migrations between breeding and calving grounds off the Baja Peninsula and summer feeding grounds in the northern Pacific. Sea otters, harbor and elephant seals, and Steller and California sea lions aggregate along the shore and haul out on land at many locations along the coast throughout the year.Seabirds are the most conspicuous members of the offshore fauna of the Olympic Coast. Sea stacks and islands provide critical nesting habitat for 19 species of marine birds and marine-associated raptors and shorebirds, including seven alcid species (murres, puffins, murrelets, etc., Figure 11), three cormorant species, four gull and tern species, two storm-petrel species, two raptors and one shorebird, the Black Oystercatcher. Productive offshore waters attract large feeding aggregations of marine birds that breed in other regions of the world but travel great distances to "winter" in sanctuary waters. The Sooty Shearwater, for example, breeds off New Zealand and Chile in the austral summer and congregates along the Pacific coast in its non-breeding season. Black-footed and Laysan Albatross travel far from their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Japan to forage in the eastern Pacific. Nearer to shore, sand and gravel beaches furnish foraging areas for shorebirds, crows, gulls and a host of other birds and mammals. The coastline forms an important migratory pathway for millions of birds that pass through each year, guiding waterfowl, cranes, shorebirds and raptors toward northern breeding areas during the spring and southward as winter approaches.
Sanctuary waters are inhabited by diverse and abundant fish and invertebrate populations (Figure 12). Commercially important fish and shellfish include at least 30 species of rockfish (including 13 state species of concern, of which three are also federal species of concern), plus Pacific halibut, herring, Pacific cod, Pacific whiting, lingcod, sablefish, 15 or more species of flatfish, Dungeness crab, razor clams, and several species of shrimp. Five species of Pacific salmon (chinook, sockeye, pink, chum and coho) occur along the outer coast of Washington and breed in the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers and streams. Three similar salmonid species found in freshwater systems (sea-run cutthroat trout, bull trout, and steelhead) spend portions of their lives in nearshore marine waters. Olympic Coast populations of Ozette sockeye and bull trout were added to the federal list of threatened species in 1999. Nearshore habitats of the sanctuary are important for salmon that spawn in adjacent streams. The sanctuary also encompasses the migration corridor of both juvenile and adult salmonids from California, Oregon and British Columbia, and from other rivers in Washington. Sharks, albacore, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and other migratory species are also found in the sanctuary seasonally. These fast-moving fishes are important resources for tribal and non-tribal fishers.
Intertidal habitats challenge inhabitants with extreme temperature, salinity and oxygen fluctuations, along with powerful physical forces such as sand scouring and wave action. Invertebrate communities in rocky intertidal zones are some of the richest on the West Coast and include a wide diversity of sea stars, sea urchins, nudibranchs, chitons and polychaetes. Macroalgae or seaweeds are also extremely diverse in the region, with an estimated 120 species thought to occur within the sanctuary rocky intertidal zone (Dethier 1988). Sandy intertidal areas host sand-dwelling invertebrates and several notable fish species including starry flounder, staghorn sculpin, sand lance, sand sole, surfperch and sanddab. Surf smelt spawn at high tide on sand-gravel beaches where surf action bathes and aerates the eggs. Rocky intertidal habitats hold another roster of residents: tidepool sculpins, gunnels, eelpouts, pricklebacks, cockcombs and warbonnets, to name few.
In the deeper areas of the sanctuary (greater than 80 meters or 250 feet) investigations have revealed stunning colonies of brightly colored, cold-water corals and sponges. These unique assemblages include soft corals such as gorgonian species, stony corals (e.g., Lophelia sp.), giant cup corals (e.g., Desmophyllum sp.) and at least 40 species of sponges (Brancato et al. 2007). The distribution of such deepwater communities, as well as their species richness and basic biology, are unknown but are currently under scientific investigation.
Maritime Archaeological Resources
Native and Prehistoric Maritime Heritage
The modern shoreline of the Olympic Peninsula contains dozens of late prehistoric archaeological sites that are rich in materials documenting the character of the maritime environment and the use of this environment by the region’s native peoples. Nearshore coastal forests adjacent to the sanctuary contain mid-Holocene shorelines and older prehistoric archaeological sites. These older sites are rich in materials documenting the character of maritime paleo-environments, the history of environmental change, and the record of use of these environments by the region’s native peoples.
The earliest dated archaeological site on the Washington Coast occurs adjacent to the sanctuary on the Makah Indian Reservation, establishing human presence for the last 6,000 years. Although complex geological and climatic factors have changed the shoreline due to tectonic uplift and global sea level rise, it is evident that humans have occupied the coastal zone and adapted to changing habitats over time. The recent investigation of paleoshoreline sites on the Makah Reservation reveals high sea-stand village sites inland along the Sooes and Waatch river valleys, in some cases greater than 10 meters above current sea level and kilometers from the current ocean shore (Wessen 2003). These sites indicate complex interactions with marine resources of the period and yield important clues to large-scale ocean and climate regimes, marine wildlife and fish populations, habitat distribution and cultural patterns of marine resource use. Late prehistoric cultural patterns are particularly well documented. The Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay houses an extraordinary collection of artifacts from the Ozette archaeological site, a Makah village that was partially buried by a mudslide nearly 500 years ago and excavated in the 1970s. Items used for research and display include whaling, seal hunting and fishing gear.
Other tangible records of prehistoric human occupation include petroglyphs — both above the intertidal zone and within it — and canoe runs, or channels cleared of boulders to facilitate landing of dugout watercraft. Research and preservation of coastal native languages, traditional cultural properties, and traditional practices of song, dance and activities like whaling also enhances awareness in native and non-native peoples of the region’s rich ocean-dependent heritage. The recent resurgence of the canoe culture in the annual “Tribal Journeys” celebration transfers knowledge and understanding of coastal culture to new generations.
Historic Maritime Heritage
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is one of the more significant and unique maritime cultural landscapes in the United States. It lies at the entrance to a major inland maritime highway, the Inside Passage to Alaska, as well as serving as the gateway to several historically significant and active ports. The combination of fierce weather, isolated and rocky shores, and thriving ship commerce have, on many occasions, made the Olympic Coast a graveyard for ships. More than 180 shipwrecks have been documented in the vicinity of the Olympic Coast through a literature review, yet only a few have been investigated using modern survey techniques (Figure 13). There are few recorded shipwrecks prior to the mid-19th century and no verified wrecks during the 18th century. The number of vessel losses increased significantly as Puget Sound developed into an economic center and as Victoria, British Columbia, developed on the north side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the 19th century. The 19th-century lumber trade, in particular, greatly expanded vessel traffic — for example, more than 600 vessels entered and cleared Puget Sound past Cape Flattery in 1886. Ship losses were predominantly weather-related and included founderings, collisions and groundings. Many ships simply disappeared, their last known location recorded by the lighthouse keeper at Tatoosh Island before they disappeared into watery oblivion (Figure 14).
Historic structures on land, while technically outside of sanctuary boundaries, remain as important tangible fragments of the past and provide insight into past human interactions with the ocean. These include historic lighthouses at Tatoosh and Destruction islands, lifesaving station remnants at Waadah Island and LaPush, wartime defense sites at Cape Flattery and Anderson Point, and sites of coastal patrol cabins scattered along the Olympic Coast. Homesteads, resorts, graves, and memorials also reflect a human dimension to the coast now largely reclaimed by time, the forest, or the sea.