Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Point Reyes State Marine Reserve

Point Reyes
Descend approximately 300 steps to the iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse to view Point Reyes State Marine Reserve.
photo by A. Van Diggelen

Many recreational activities associated with marine protected areas (MPAs) require a visitor to at least get their feet wet, but Point Reyes State Marine Reserve (SMR) offers visitors the opportunity to view and enjoy a wide diversity of animals from shore, and a bathing suit isn’t even required!

map by CDFW Marine Region GIS Lab

Point Reyes SMR and the other 123 MPAs along California’s coast aim to protect the ecosystem of an area, rather than a handful of individual species. This means California’s MPAs protect not only living things, such as kelp forests and the fish species that live there, but also the non-living things, such as the shells that could become homes for hermit crabs. With Point Reyes SMR protecting even the smallest of creatures, their abundance as a food source can increase, which in turn may attract a broad range of larger marine animals to the area. Point Reyes, about a two hour drive north of San Francisco, extends out into the Pacific Ocean and offers one of the most unobstructed views of California’s coastline. Given its unique geography, visitors gain an unparalleled perspective of Point Reyes SMR and an opportunity to view some spectacular marine life.

  • Head towards Elephant Seal Overlook between the months of December and March for a chance to see a breeding colony of northern elephant seals. In order to establish dominance and stake out territory, males are the first to arrive, followed by pregnant females who subsequently give birth to pups.
    elephant seal pups
    Juvenile northern elephant seals mimic the behavior displayed by adult males during the breeding season.
    CDFW photo by A. Van Diggelen
  • The annual gray whale migration occurs from January through early May. The most frequent sightings of these massive animals in and around Point Reyes SMR occur in mid-January during the southern migration, and their return mid-March during the northern migration.
  • Eastern Steller sea lions may be spotted on occasion near rocky outcroppings such as those by the Point Reyes Lighthouse or Sea Lion Overlook. An established breeding colony comes ashore to breed and give birth to pups at Southeast Farallon Island, so the greatest likelihood of spying one of these marine mammals is during transit to or from the rookery from May through August.
  • Visible year-round, resident harbor seals haul out of the waters surrounding Point Reyes and can be seen on low profile sandbars, beaches, and rocks.
  • Head towards any rocky headland such as Chimney Rock, Sea Lion Overlook, or the Point Reyes Lighthouse and look for California sea lions. The best time to see these marine mammals is between May and July. They may exhibit a multitude of behaviors ranging from resting on shore, to jumping out of the water, or even “surfing” waves close to Drakes Beach.
  • Seabirds can be seen hunting in the Point Reyes SMR and resting onshore near rocky headlands, some of which are protected year-round within the Point Reyes Headlands Special Closure. Species to look for include: common murres, Brandt’s cormorants, surf scoters, and pigeon guillemots in the spring; brown pelicans in the fall, and black oystercatchers year-round.

Enjoying Point Reyes SMR isn’t restricted to water-based activities. All you need is the appropriate attire for the weather, maybe a few snacks, a pair of binoculars, and you are set! To commemorate your visit to the MPA, you may want to bring along a camera to capture the sights as you explore another of California’s scenic MPAs.

Best months of the year to spot popular marine mammals at Point Reyes State Marine Reserve
CDFW table

Point Reyes State Marine Reserve is one of the 124 MPAs in California’s statewide MPA Network. Please visit CDFW’s MPA website for more information, and sign up to receive updates about the MPA Management Program.

MPA logo

post by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


Learn more about MPAs by diving into the Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas series!