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

One stretch of coastline in Central California is so picturesque that it is considered by some to be “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.”  Filled with amazing hiking trails, abundant marine life, and unparalleled scuba diving, this area is just a short drive south of the Monterey Peninsula. Given how easy it is to get there, it’s no surprise that Point Lobos State Natural Reserve attracts over 530,000 visitors every year from all over the world.

Point Lobos SMR evolved from previously designated protected areas (click to enlarge)
CDFW map by M. Fredle

The ocean waters surrounding the natural reserve constitute California’s fifth-oldest state marine reserve (SMR), Point Lobos SMR. Originally established in 1974 as Point Lobos Ecological Reserve by the California Fish and Game Commission, it was expanded and renamed Point Lobos State Marine Reserve in 2007 during the Marine Life Protection Act redesign process. Point Lobos SMR, where the take of both living and non-living marine resources is prohibited, is part of California’s network of 124 marine protected areas (MPAs). For nearly ten years, Point Lobos SMR has protected the area from fishing and most other extractive activities. Add to this over forty years of protection from fishing pressure within the former Point Lobos Ecological Reserve, and it is easy to see why fish are quite at ease with divers here. The clear water, sheltered coves, abundant marine life, and pristine habitat of Point Lobos SMR have helped it to become a very popular scuba diving spot.

Blue Fish Cove
Bluefish Cove, a popular dive site in Point Lobos SMR
photo by M. Fredle
  • Bluefish Cove (featured in the video above) has a reputation for never disappointing scuba divers looking for adventure. Due to its proximity to Carmel Canyon, divers can witness underwater pinnacles and the diversity of marine life associated with them. However, accessing this cove is not easy. It can be reached only after a long swim, or use of a dive scooter or boat. Note that the boat launch at Whalers Cove can only accommodate inflatable vessels or kayaks.
  • Cannery Point is the most easily accessible dive area in Point Lobos SMR. Scuba divers are instructed to swim along a rock wall until they reach the point that separates inner and outer Whalers Cove. This area is known for large submerged boulders that fell from the cliffs above in the distant past. Head further west of the point, and curious harbor seals might invite you to play.
    Cannery Point
    Cannery Point in Point Lobos SMR
    photo by M. Fredle
  • Coal Chute Cove, also known as “The Pit,” has three submarine caverns. The main cavern is the largest and most thoroughly explored, with a 12-by-24 foot entrance and a 50-foot long main cavern that has a small opening onto Whalers Cove at the back. There is an abundance of invertebrate life in the cavern, including sponges along the ceiling, colorful nudibranchs and seas slugs, and other species that are only native to caves – so be sure to bring a dive light and camera! Because the cove is exposed to the open sea, it is recommended that divers only venture into the caverns on calm days.
  • Whaler’s Middle Reef is the most visited reef at Point Lobos. This dive spot is perfect for all types of divers: from beginning divers who are comfortable in shallower waters to veteran divers who can go a little deeper or stay out a little longer. Kelp forests are prominent on the reef, and are home to many fish and invertebrates. On your dive, look for rockfish and invertebrates hiding in crevices; they may come out and say “Hi!”.

If you want to learn more about diving areas in the reserve, please check out the Point Lobos Foundation website. Everyone who scuba dives in Point Lobos SMR must not only follow the MPA’s no-take restrictions,  they must also follow strict safety regulations and request a reservation. Spots are limited and fill up fast! Please visit the California Department of Parks and Recreation website for more information about scuba diving at Point Lobos.

Sea Lion Rock
Sea Lion Rock, a great place to watch for passing whales
photo by M. Fredle

Diving is just one of the many activities available at Point Lobos – hikers and kayakers also love the reserve. From shore, whales can be spotted year-round near Sea Lion Rock, and if you listen over the crashing waves, you can hear the “bark” of sea lions. Take a walk to China Cove and expect to see harbor seals basking on the beach, or a sea otter gathering food.

One kayaker in particular may be spotted frequently as part of the flagship MPA education program that the California Department of  Parks and Recreation is launching with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The program features an interpreter on a kayak who talks to kids in classrooms live about the kelp forest ecosystem at Point Lobos SMR.

Sea life abounds in the waters off Point Lobos in one of California’s oldest MPAs. Protected first as an ecological reserve in the 1970s, then as a marine reserve in the 2000s, divers who visit from around the world can witness first-hand the results of over forty years of protection.

For a look at another of California’s oldest MPAs, dig up the March-April 2016 edition of CDFW’s Outdoor California magazine, which includes an article about the oldest MPA in California’s MPA network, San Diego-Scripps Coastal State Marine Conservation Area.

Point Lobos 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 Molly Fredle, CDFW Scientific Aid


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