Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Marine Conservation Area

The Monterey Peninsula is famous for its scenic views and amazing wildlife. Along the coastline, in the city of Pacific Grove is a beautiful place that exemplifies these features called the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA). This marine protected area (MPA) is nestled between two other MPAs: Asilomar State Marine Reserve (SMR) and Lovers Point-Julia Platt SMR. These three MPAs are all part of California’s MPA Network of 124 MPAs that spans the entire coastline, and is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). The Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA, as well as its neighboring MPAs, are encompassed within the larger federally managed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Pacific Grove tidepool
Pacific Grove tidepools
CDFW Photo by L. Slatoff

The Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA offers the opportunity to enjoy recreational activities, including surfing, swimming, wildlife viewing and fishing. The recreational take of finfish and limited commercial take of kelp are allowed in this MPA, but other forms of take are not allowed.  The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail runs along this area and is a popular place to walk or bike while taking in the ocean views. For those who want to get in the water, there are sandy beaches enticing visitors to swim or simply splash in the surf. Farther out from shore, kelp forests attract divers and kayakers to explore this habitat teeming with life.

Holdfast of Giant Kelp near Lover's Point, Pacific Grove, CA.
Holdfast of Giant Kelp near Lover’s Point
NOAA/BNMS Photo by C. King

The towering kelp forests in this area are formed by two kelp species: giant kelp or bull kelp. Though kelp forests have declined in recent years as the result of multiple factors, they are still an important part of the Monterey Peninsula marine ecology. These forests provide food and habitat for many species, from sea otters to sea birds to well-known fish like blue rockfish, kelp greenling, and rubberlip perch. The kelp extends from holdfasts, a tangly structure often described as the “roots” of the kelp, that are anchored to the rocky seafloor and grow up towards the surface in thick canopies. Bull kelp grows on average about 4 inches (10 centimeters) a day while giant kelp grows a staggering average of 10 inches (27 centimeters) a day. The holdfast provides a wonderful habitat for many smaller creatures.

Tidepool with giant green anemones, turban snails and hermit crabs
Tidepool with giant green anemones, turban snails and hermit crabs
CDFW Photo by L. Slatoff

Another fun and fascinating habitat to explore within Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA is the vast tidepools between the rocky outcroppings. Tidepools offer a wonderful chance to discover creatures that live in the intertidal zone, the part of the shoreline exposed during low tides. The animals and algae that live here are adapted to survive extreme conditions, such as the force from crashing waves and high temperatures from sun exposure. Different species can be found in different tidepools depending on where the tidepool is located. Some species such as hermit crabs, mussels, and algae like sea palm are found higher on the shore in the high intertidal zone. Others like sculpins, nudibranchs and sea stars are found lower on the shore in the low intertidal zone. If you decide to venture closer to the water’s edge, remember to be aware of the rising tide and stay alert against larger waves. Never turn your back to the ocean!

Pacific Grove KissingRock
Pacific Grove Kissing Rock
CDFW Photo by L. Slatoff

In the low intertidal and subtidal zones, there are large communities of surfgrass that grow in meadows. Surfgrass is one of the few flowering marine plants and is only visible at very low tide. These meadows are ecologically important areas that act as nursery habitats for fish and invertebrate species, including pricklebacks, olive rockfish, and sea stars. In addition, they help keep the water clear by taking nutrients out of the water and slowing currents which allows sediment to settle to the bottom which is then held in place by the roots. They also take carbon dioxide from the air and store it in a process called carbon sequestrating. Like kelp, surfgrass provides structure that attracts other species. These organisms that help define ecological communities are called foundation species and are important for maintaining intact ecosystems. If you want to see more organisms that can be found in the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA, you can watch this video taken during one of CDFW’s remotely operated vehicle surveys of the area.

Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA also has some interesting historical features. Along a rocky section of the coastline is a local landmark called the kissing rock. This rock formation was naturally formed by the waves and is said to resemble the silhouette of two people kissing. Due to its romantic shape, it has been a popular photo spot since Victorian times.

Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos Lighthouse
CDFW Photo by L. Slatoff

Near the western border of this MPA is the Point Pinos Lighthouse, which is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast. The lighthouse was first lit in 1855 and the original lens is still in use today! Inside the building is a museum with exhibits about the history of the lighthouse and stories about the lives of the former keepers. Volunteers provide guided tours, and operating hours can be found on their website.

Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA is a wonderful place to enjoy nature. From the beach to the tidepools to the kelp forests, there is so much to explore!

Pacific Grove SMCA 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.


Post by Lara Slatoff, CDFW Environmental Scientist

Video by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist