Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Año Nuevo State Marine Reserve

All throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, one of my favorite activities was the class field trip. No matter where we were going, I was excited to visit somewhere new. On the central California coast, students often visit the sandy beaches of Año Nuevo – a field trip location I wasn’t fortunate enough to visit until I had grown up, but it was worth the wait.

Año Nuevo’s unique environment led to the establishment of a land-based state park in 1985 and a marine protected area (MPA) in the adjacent ocean in 2007. Año Nuevo State Park is comprised of wetland marshes, rolling sand dunes, chaparral, coastal scrub and terrace prairie. Año Nuevo State Marine Reserve (SMR), the most recently established MPA (established as a State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) in 2007 with a designation change to SMR in 2016), hosts sandy beaches, rocky intertidal zones, dense kelp forests, coastal marsh, and surfgrass near shore, while the deeper waters are home to a mixture of rocky and sandy bottoms to depths of 175 feet.

elephant seals
Elephant seals come ashore to molt.
CDFW photo by A. Van Diggelen

As school groups arrive for a day of adventure, many of the students are unaware of the beauty and wilderness that await them. Año Nuevo State Park offers students (and visitors) the opportunity to participate in guided tours to see one of California’s largest mainland populations of breeding elephant seals, learn about the natural and cultural aspects of the area, visit the Marine Education Center, and explore the grounds. The 2½- to 3-hour guided walking tour can be quite the trek through chaparral and sand dunes, but the hike is well worth it. Visitors experience breathtaking scenery and marvel at the elephant seals, which can weigh over a thousand pounds apiece. Those with limited mobility can explore the park by participating in “Equal Access Tours” that occur twice a day on weekends during breeding season (December–March).

Where the state park ends at the tideline, Año Nuevo SMR begins. Año Nuevo SMR is split between San Mateo County to the north and Santa Cruz County to the south, and shares its southern boundary with Greyhound Rock SMCA. Stretching more than eight miles along the coast and protecting an area greater than 11 square miles, Año Nuevo SMR is considered a “backbone” MPA (providing very high or high levels of ecosystem protection) within the statewide network of 124 MPAs.

Ano Nuevo map
Año Nuevo State Marine Reserve. State Park elephant seal tour area in yellow box (click to enlarge)
Map by CDFW Marine Region GIS Lab

From sandy beaches to deep offshore waters, Año Nuevo SMR is teeming with life. Giant kelp forests grow from the depths to create dense canopy cover, suitable for predators and prey alike. Located along the Pacific Flyway, Año Nuevo provides abundant food for migratory and resident birds within tidepools, along beaches, and in open waters where schools of bait fish thrive. The area supports such a wide diversity of marine life that many of the planet’s largest marine predators, including whales, dolphins, and the white shark, frequent Año Nuevo SMR. Marine mammals such as the elephant seal, more than 300 species of invertebrates (animals without spines like limpets or crabs), and numerous fish and seabirds call Año Nuevo SMR home.

Visitors here may take nothing from the SMR except pictures or video (like this one!) because all marine resources (living and non-living) are protected. Even though you cannot fish or collect shells below the mean high tide line, other recreational activities are encouraged. Beach wheelchairs are available for use (check with a ranger, or preferably call ahead) to allow all guests to fully enjoy Año Nuevo’s coast. Visitors can go tidepooling (no-touch observations only), embrace the cold California waters during a swim, or even brave the surf break and paddle out with the local surfers! Just remember that Año Nuevo is at the tip of California’s “red triangle”, an area known to be frequented by great white sharks attracted to the area by the abundant seal and sea lion populations!

PORTS Program informational flyer

For students who are unable to visit Año Nuevo State Park and Año Nuevo SMR themselves, we’re bringing the field trip to them! California State Parks and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife formed a partnership to create the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (or PORTS) program, a free distance-learning program that brings California State Parks and MPAs into classrooms. One of the program’s features is an in-classroom learning unit focused on the life of elephant seals at Año Nuevo SMR.  Using interactive videoconferencing, students are able to interact with park rangers as they learn about specific units of study. The program helps to bring the great outdoors into the classroom of schools either too far away or too underfunded to visit in person.

Año Nuevo is one of California’s special places, where visitors can create lasting memories of the scenery and wildlife. For years, visitors and students have flocked to the location. Now, thanks to California State Parks and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, even more students will have a chance to learn about this beautiful location and the elephant seals that return every year.

Año Nuevo 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_abbreviated_full-colorpost by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist

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