Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Pillar Point State Marine Conservation Area

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Pillar Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) is located on the stunning coastline of San Mateo county just south of San Francisco. This marine protected area (MPA) lies on the northern edge of Half Moon Bay and is known for its abundant marine life, “fish in grey suits” (white sharks), surfers in rubber suits, and wild waves. 

Pillar Point SMCA and Montara State Marine Reserve, with Mavericks surf break (green star) on the southern edge of the SMCA (click to enlarge).
CDFW map

Near the southern boundary of the Pillar Point SMCA is the famed big-wave surf break ‘Mavericks’. The unique depth and shape of the underwater terrain (bathymetry) in the area concentrates wave energy onto a shallow rocky reef that has a unique northward curving pattern. This reef creates waves greater than 50 feet tall, and breaks whenever there is a large north Pacific storm throughout the winter months. The waves at Mavericks are challenging, known to surfers as ‘heavy water waves’, and those that surf it risk their lives or serious injury. However, these waves do offer a rare and mythical hollow barreling wave the size of a city building, which is sought after by the world’s top big-wave surfers.

For those surfers hardy enough to brave the massive swells, strong currents, wild winds, and cold winter water temperatures, a gnarly wave awaits with steep elevator drops and the possibility of pulling into a barrel. If you are lucky enough to make the drop, you will need to hold on for your life, as a wipeout at this spot is not for the faint-hearted! There is a reason Mavericks is described by many as one of the scariest surf spots on the planet. When surfers wipe out (not if, but when), they are thrust underwater for up to a minute while being thrashed in all directions, with no indication of which way is up.

Definitely a place for daredevils!
In the summer months, when winter storms abate and calmer conditions prevail, the wondrous underwater world is revealed. Inside Pillar Point SMCA you will find abundant marine life.  Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) and giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) reach up through the water column to the sea surface. These two algae species form a complex three-dimensional habitat that offers important shelter and hunting areas for fish such as black rockfish (Sebastes melanops). Beneath the kelp canopy you will find a rocky reef full of sea anemones like Metridium and understory algae species such as pom-pom kelp (Pterygophora californica), which provide ample habitat and abundant food sources for crabs, abalone, and urchins which are prey for fish such as the wolf-eel.

On a calm summer day, the appeal of seeing this underwater world yourself may beckon. If you do decide to scuba dive or snorkel, remember to wear a thick wetsuit as the water temperature in summer is only 55° F due to wind-driven upwelling keeping the water cool. Or, if you would rather stay out of the water and take advantage of local fishing, please be aware of the regulations. Inside Pillar Point SMCA, both the commercial and recreational take of pelagic finfish, Dungeness crab, and market squid is allowed, but all other take is prohibited. If you’re not keen on getting in the water, you can also explore the great walking, hiking, and biking trails in the area, or you can just stroll along the beach inside the bay looking at shells and algae washed up by the wild surf offshore.

Whether you are someone who likes to enjoy the ocean from shore or by diving in, there are many more adventures awaiting those who explore and discover California’s MPAs for themselves. You can also sign up here to receive the latest news about the management of California’s MPAs.

Pillar Point State Marine Conservation Area 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.

logopost by Robert Win, CDFW Environmental Scientist

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