Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Point Dume State Marine Reserve and Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area

Just over 30 miles due west of downtown Los Angeles, one of the world’s most popular coastal destinations — Malibu — attracts millions of visitors each year. Famous for expansive beaches, sprawling estates, and majestic mountains, Malibu averages over 280 sunny days a year, and is an outdoor haven for locals and tourists alike.

Point Dume SMR and Point Dume SMCA
(click to enlarge)

Encompassing more than 25 miles of coastline, Malibu is home to beaches, beaches, and surprise…more beaches! While many of these beaches represent the quintessential southern California expanses of soft, sandy shorelines, there are a variety of other shore types here ranging from secluded coves, to rocky areas characterized by tidepools and natural arches, to steep rocky headlands. These diverse shorelines also lend themselves to a variety of offshore habitats like surfgrass beds, kelp forests, deep rocky reefs, and submarine canyons.

In 2012, two of California’s 124 marine protected areas, or MPAs, were established along Malibu’s coast to help protect this unique collection of marine habitats. With a combined shoreline spanning almost five miles, and extending from the mean high tide line to depths greater than 2,000 feet, the Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and Point Dume State Marine Reserve (SMR) work in tandem to protect a variety of habitats and marine species along Malibu’s coastline.

Habitats Protected by the Point Dume MPAs

Sandy beaches serve as a buffer zone, protecting the shoreline, headlands, and sand dunes, and minimizing coastal erosion. Beyond protecting our coastline and providing a recreational area for visitors, the sandy beaches of Point Dume SMR and Point Dume SMCA are important habitat for a variety of species like sand crabs, clams, and California grunion. These remarkable little fish put on quite the show during spawning season!  From March through September, hundreds to thousands of these little fish squirm completely out of the water to lay eggs in the wet sand of gently sloping sandy beaches.

Rocky shores provide visitors with an opportunity to glimpse the marine life that exists beneath the watery surface without going for a swim. Look into a tidepool exposed during low tide and you can see invertebrates like mussels, barnacles, sea anemones, nudibranchs, and maybe an octopus; you may also spy fish like juvenile garibaldi or opaleye darting around in the shallow waters. The best time to visit these rocky shores is during a minus tide, so check a tidal chart before heading out.

Surfgrass can typically be found along rocky shores and offshore in shallow rocky habitats. It can increase water clarity by trapping sediments, help prevent erosion, and act as a fantastic carbon sink, mitigating the effects of climate change in the surrounding habitat! Surfgrass also provides important nursery habitat for many species and life stages of local fish and invertebrates, like the commercially important California spiny lobster. 

Sandy bottoms may appear “plain” or “boring” at first glance, but they are actually teeming with life! Camouflaged flatfish like sanddabs and California halibut blend in perfectly with these soft-bottomed habitats, which allows them to hunt for smaller baitfish like Pacific sardines. Bat rays will cruise over the sandy surface and flap their fins or dig their snouts into the soft sediment to uncover buried prey like clams and worms. Nearshore fish, like surfperches and croakers, feast on invertebrates buried in the sand, and in turn can attract larger predatory marine mammals such as sea lions and dolphins to the area. At depths between 65 and 230 feet, market squid spawn on these soft sandy bottoms.

Rocky reefs and kelp forests provide some of the richest and most important habitat within Point Dume’s MPAs.  Giant kelp anchors to the rocky bottom and provides a foundation for other species and plants to thrive in the area. Everything from large animals like giant sea bass to smaller invertebrates like scallops, and everything in between (including kelp bass, moray eels, sea urchins, leopard sharks, and more) depend on Point Dume’s kelp forest habitat. 

Submarine canyon habitat is easily the least accessible of all Point Dume SMR and Point Dume SMCA habitats due to depth and offshore location, but marine life abounds in these deeper waters. Gorgonians and sea pens line the upper canyon walls, which begin at about 200 feet deep. Extending down more than 1,000 feet, the deep canyon walls are home to the strange benthic siphonophore, spot prawn, squat lobster, and the highly armored California king crab. The canyon also drives cold water and nutrients to the surface through a process called upwelling. These nutrients feed plankton blooms, which attract krill and small fish— prime food for hungry whales and seabirds. Gray, fin, blue, humpback, and minke whales have all been spotted in the area feasting in the rich waters that upwelling promotes.

How can you enjoy these MPAs?

  • Go fishing in Point Dume SMCA! Limited fishing is allowed for recreational and commercial fishermen. With a valid fishing license, recreational fishermen are welcome to go spearfishing for white seabass and pelagic finfish such as yellowtail, as long as they follow fishing regulations such as size, season, and bag limits for these fish.
  • Take advantage of the hiking trails on top of Point Dume to enjoy the expansive views. Maybe you will spot migrating whales feeding in the offshore canyon!
  • Walk carefully through the rocky intertidal areas at low tide to see the marine life living along the shore.
  • Advanced scuba divers can explore the pinnacles in Point Dume SMR, and see the giant kelp forests filled with sea life.

There are many more adventures awaiting those who explore and discover these Southern California MPAs for themselves.

Point Dume State Marine Reserve and Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area are two 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.

logopost by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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