Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Scorpion State Marine Reserve

Northeast Santa Cruz Island
photo by A. Van Diggelen

Are you looking for an island getaway? Somewhere off the beaten path with unparalleled views, and few people with whom to share the island? While more than 17 million people live less than 100 miles away in bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, the largest of Southern California’s eight Channel Islands sits just offshore beckoning visitors from the mainland. Santa Cruz Island offers visitors solitude, adventure, and the opportunity to experience life the way it once was.

Looking offshore from the Ventura harbor, this jagged, majestic island looms in the distance, cutting into the smooth curve of the horizon. From the moment you cruise out of the harbor towards Santa Cruz Island, accessible to the public only by boat, you are in for a scenic experience; the Santa Barbara Channel is teeming with marine life. During the typical one-hour boat ride to the island it is common to see whale spouts and flukes in the distance, a pod of dolphins hunting for food or riding the prow of your boat, and birds gliding over the waves in search of their next meal.

Santa Cruz Island MPAs (click to enlarge)
CDFW map by S. Hubbard

As your boat cruises towards Scorpion Anchorage on the northeast side of the island, the most common location to disembark, you travel through an Area of Special Biological Significance (established 1974), a National Biosphere Reserve (established 1976), a National Marine Sanctuary and National Park (each established 1980), as well as one of the island’s three marine protected areas (MPAs), Scorpion State Marine Reserve (SMR, established 2003). Implementation of this MPA, which prohibits take of any marine resources, began following a request from the Channel Islands Marine Resources Restoration Committee. This group of concerned citizens requested that the California Fish and Game Commission  establish a network of MPAs around the northern Channel Islands. In 2012, while establishing a statewide MPA network through the Marine Life Protection Act process, the previously established Scorpion SMR was retained by the California Fish and Game Commission as part of the 50 south coast region MPAs.

sea lion
A sea lion surfaces in a kelp forest.
CDFW photo by A. Van Diggelen

With multiple layers of marine protection, visitors who want to explore the ocean within Scorpion SMR are in for a treat! The clear blue waters rival the colors often associated with the Caribbean. Before jumping in, know that the temperature is not the same; water temperatures are chilly, ranging from 57 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit (14-19 degrees Celsius). A wetsuit will be the uniform of the day for most people before spending any significant time in these waters! However, these cool waters support a colorful tapestry of marine life and hosts one of the planet’s great marine ecosystems.

Giant kelp, growing up to two feet per day in the right conditions, floats towards the surface creating habitat for an incredible display of marine life. Kayakers can stare down between the blades and see schools of fish and, if they’re lucky, a Bat Ray gliding in the depths. Seals and sea lions are often seen at the surface taking a breath before resuming their hunt in the forest below. Paddle into one of the many sea caves peppering the sides of the steep cliffs and you will see encrusting invertebrates like barnacles and mussels lining the walls just beneath the surface.

A two-spot octopus glides across the sandy bottom.
CDFW photo by A. Van Diggelen

If you are willing to take the plunge and dive in completely, snorkeling or scuba diving in Scorpion SMR will give you an even better view of the marine life, and the opportunity to see an underwater world teeming with life. Sheep crab and California spiny lobster can be found skittering across rocks or tucked beneath ledges. Eelgrass grows nearshore on the sandy bottom and provides a nursery habitat for young fish, slow moving sea cucumbers, and the occasional octopus hiding in a burrow. Fish like Blacksmith, Halfmoon, Kelp Bass, Opaleye, and the always-recognizable orange Garibaldi, California’s state marine fish, are easily spotted in this underwater oasis.

Once you step onto this rugged, mountainous location, know that a day of adventure awaits. You can begin hiking along the coast for panoramic views of Scorpion SMR, set up a campsite if staying overnight to take advantage of the outdoor activities, or jump right in the water and begin exploring the reserve. Great for hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, camping, picnicking, and more, Santa Cruz Island and Scorpion SMR are perfect for your next island getaway.

Scorpion State Marine Reserve is one of 124 MPAs that are part of California’s statewide MPA network. Please visit CDFW’s MPA website for more information about the MPA network, and sign up to receive updates about the MPA Management Program.

logo   post by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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