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

Hopkin's rose nudibranch
Montara State Marine Reserve is an excellent place to find many different species of tiny sea slugs, such as this Hopkins rose nudibranch.
photo by R. Cala

Summer temperatures in California’s land-locked central valley can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing residents to take refuge in their air-conditioned homes. Another popular way to beat the heat is to visit the coast near San Francisco, where billows of silvery fog and a cool, salt-soaked breeze beckon visitors during the summer months. Montara State Marine Reserve (SMR), situated about 20 miles south of San Francisco, provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to explore this unique part of California’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network.

Map of SMR
Montara State Marine Reserve, the smaller James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, and the bordering Pillar Point State Marine Conservation Area (click to enlarge)
CDFW map by Marine Region GIS Lab

Established in 2010, Montara SMR is an important piece of a larger, interconnected network of MPAs that pepper the entire California coast. The importance of the reserve as part of the MPA Network can be measured by the number of entities protecting its amazing biodiversity and natural history. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife manages Montara SMR, which is nested within the federally managed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary that spans the coast from San Francisco County to San Luis Obispo County. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the smallest of the protected areas here, overlaps the state SMR (see map). As a part of Montara SMR, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is co-managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and San Mateo County Parks.

Visitors spend a gray summer day tidepooling in Montara State Marine Reserve
CDFW photo by C. Shen

In the early 1900s, scientists began uncovering the diverse world of marine seaweeds and invertebrates (animals without a spine) that make their home in what is now Montara SMR. The county government passed a bill in 1969 that created Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to safeguard the area’s unique rocky intertidal habitat, paving the way for a generation of marine naturalists who continue to explore and conduct research in the area today. Recently, the reserve celebrated its 50-year anniversary. Docents with Friends of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve lead tours during low tides, teaching visitors proper tidepool etiquette and unveiling a world only visible when the ocean retreats.

One of the most curious creatures in Montara SMR’s tidepools is a tiny but very charismatic sea slug, or nudibranch (pronounced noo-duh-brank). Often no longer than a pinky finger, visitors that are lucky enough to spot one of these little slugs are thrilled by their brilliant colors and frilly “ruffles”. Nudibranchs use these flashy, feathery appendages to breathe, and their colorful markings warn predators that they would not make a very tasty snack.

video linkScientists with the California Academy of Sciences study how these nudibranchs help enhance the biodiversity, or variety of species, inside the MPA. With the help of volunteer naturalists and citizen science programs like Snapshot Cal Coast, they conduct quarterly nudibranch censuses and annual bioblitzes at the reserve. Despite worse-than-usual weather conditions that made finding the small slugs a true treasure hunt during the last survey, participants counted over 200 individuals and identified 8 different species of nudibranch. Out of the estimated 188 species of nudibranch that occur in California, at least 40 have been documented within Montara SMR.

If teetering around in the tidepools at Montara SMR isn’t your idea of a fun day, consider visiting some of the nearby landmarks to absorb some history and local folklore. The north end of Montara SMR is guarded by Point Montara Lighthouse, the only lighthouse in the United States that has guided sailors through rough seas on both coasts. Built in Boston in the late 1800s, the lighthouse spent the first half-century of its life overlooking Cape Cod. Dismantled and thought to be recycled for scrap metal, the structure mysteriously reappeared on Point Montara in 1928. Exactly how it made its cross-country journey remains a puzzle to this day.

A great place to enjoy the view of Montara SMR is from the patio of the historic Moss Beach Distillery. The isolated eatery opened as a speakeasy during prohibition, then called Frank’s Place. It attracted socialites from San Francisco who enjoyed the contraband the Canadian rum runners illegally smuggled into the calm waters of Seal Cove, close to the mid-point of the Montara SMR shoreline. As you dine overlooking the cove, you may hear the faint whisper over the waves of the Distillery’s famous ghost, the Blue Lady.

Today, as its name suggests, harbor seals nap and raise their pups in the protected cove, where activity from the San Gregorio Fault has folded and bent the rocks they rest on into a nearly perfect arch.

Whether you are a city dweller looking for a nature outing close-by, a traveler cruising California’s famous coastside highway, or a visitor trying to beat the summer heat and spend a nice, foggy day on the coast, Montara SMR and its surrounding coastline is the perfect place to discover something new, or even befriend a mischievous ghost.

Montara 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 logopost by Sara Worden, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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