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

Cabrillo SMR Coast
Cabrillo State Marine Reserve at low tide
photo by C. Shen

If you’ve never been tidepooling, the Point Loma tidepools in San Diego are a good place to start. These tidepools lie within Cabrillo State Marine Reserve (SMR) and Cabrillo National Monument, just a short drive down the hill from the national monument’s main entrance and visitor center. With easy access and docents available to help guide visitors’ experiences, it is a popular place to dip your toes into the water and take a glimpse into the shallow underwater world.

Tidepool Docent at Cabrillo SMR
Cabrillo National Monument tidepool docent in the tidepool
photo by C. Shen

Tidepool animals are adapted to living between the tides, alternating between being submerged in water during high tide and exposed to air during low tide. If you time your trip just right during an exceptionally good low tide, you’ll be dazzled by the colors that are revealed when the sea retreats: green sea anemones, orange sea stars, purple sea urchins, and a pink carpet of coralline algae. Some animals are abundant and can be seen right away. Mussels, barnacles, limpets, and snails oftentimes blanket the rocks, clinging tightly to avoid being swept away by crashing waves and closing their shells to keep from drying out. Other animals, like crabs, nudibranchs, and octopuses, are more mobile and elusive, often requiring more luck to find.

Hermit crabs in tidepool
Hermit crabs at the Point Loma tidepools in Cabrillo SMR
photo by C. Shen

Cabrillo SMR and Cabrillo National Monument are managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the National Park Service (NPS), respectively. Both agencies restrict collecting living or non-living natural or cultural resources within the boundaries of Cabrillo SMR and Cabrillo National Monument. When visiting the tidepools, be careful to watch where you step, and look but don’t move or disturb the animals. Even seaweeds and shells can be important hideaways for tidepool creatures, so these should also be left in their place. Remember, the Point Loma tidepools attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, so individual actions can really add up! It is important to reduce human impacts as much as possible to prevent habitat degradation and ensure that future visitors are also able to enjoy this not-so-hidden gem.

While Cabrillo National Monument was established over a century ago in 1913, Cabrillo SMR was more recently designated in 2012, surrounding the national monument’s west and south sides. Cabrillo SMR belongs to a statewide network of 124 marine protected areas (MPAs) managed by CDFW. CDFW has allied with NPS to manage Cabrillo SMR, since no-take regulations and ecological monitoring of tidepool habitats had already been in place for decades at Cabrillo National Monument. Cabrillo SMR extended existing protections from the shoreline out to a depth of about 30 feet and integrates resource management across the land-sea boundary. The partnership between CDFW and NPS increases management efficiency and reinforces stewardship of these protected places.

Cabrillo SMR map
Map of Cabrillo State Marine Reserve (click to enlarge)
CDFW map by Marine Region GIS Lab

Cabrillo National Monument was originally established as a historical landmark that commemorates the site of the first European landing on what is now the west coast of the United States. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo set sail from Mexico on a northward expedition to map the coast and find trading opportunities on behalf of Spain. Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay, which he described as “a closed and very good port,” to wait out a storm and collect fresh water before continuing his voyage along much of California’s coastline. Although Cabrillo met his fate before returning to Mexico and the expedition was considered a failure at the time, his voyage made history by providing the first written account of California’s coastal geography.

Cabrillo Statue
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo statue
photo by C. Shen

Perched high atop the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula, a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo gazes over the entrance to San Diego Bay. Here, visitors can learn about this piece of U.S. history and admire panoramic views of San Diego. A short walk over to the ocean side of the peninsula brings visitors to the whale overlook area, offering an unobstructed view of the nearshore ocean. During winter, spouting gray whales can be seen from a distance as they pass Cabrillo SMR on their way to Baja California to mate and give birth.

This strategic position on the Point Loma peninsula, over 400 feet above sea level, has also served more practical purposes in history. The area has been utilized by the U.S. military since 1852 and functioned as a defense post during World Wars I and II. In 1855, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was completed and guided vessels on both sides of the peninsula, on the open ocean and in the bay. However, its elevation, which was originally seen as an advantage, was impractical for a lighthouse as it was oftentimes shrouded in fog and low clouds. Less than 40 years later, a new lighthouse was constructed at the base of the hill and is still in use today, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
photo by C. Shen

Cabrillo SMR and Cabrillo National Monument serve as tributes to both history and nature. When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay, he encountered native peoples, the Kumeyaay. They prospered off the riches of the land and the sea. Kumeyaay fished offshore in reed canoes, wore sea otter, seal, and deer pelts draped across their shoulders, and adorned themselves with feathers and shell jewelry. California’s abundant and diverse coastal resources have always drawn people here and sustained them. As California’s population grows, these resources need to be actively managed to ensure that they continue to feed and inspire us for generations to come. By establishing protected areas, we honor and create space for both our natural and cultural heritage to persist into the future.

Cabrillo State Marine Reserve is one of 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 Chenchen Shen, CDFW Environmental Scientist

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