Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area

Carmel Bay SMCA
Looking north along the beach at Carmel Bay SMCA
CDFW photo by L. Gatlin

Carmel Bay has been a vacation destination for decades, but there is more to this area than picturesque views. Just offshore are some of California’s most amazing ocean habitats, which are protected within the Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA). This marine protected area (MPA) stretches from Pescadero Point past the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monastery Beach, and is part of California’s globally recognized network of 124 MPAs. Within this MPA, amazing species and unique geology lie just below the waves.

map of Carmel Bay SMCA
Map of Carmel Bay SMCA and surrounding MPAs (click to enlarge)
CDFW map

The numerous creatures that live in Carmel Bay SMCA are there partially due to upwelling in the area. Upwelling occurs when coastal winds blow the nutrient-depleted surface waters off the coast, to be replaced with nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the ocean. These nutrients lead to an increase in plankton, a food source that attracts a wide array of marine life to the area.

The depth of the ocean floor can also influence upwelling. Generally speaking, there is enhanced upwelling in areas where deep ocean canyons abruptly meet shallower areas. This is the situation in Carmel Bay where Carmel Canyon, a branch of the world famous Monterey Canyon System, comes close to shore. This abrupt meeting of deep and shallow water causes underwater eddies, or circular water currents, which helps bring nutrients up from deeper water.

Recovering a remotely operated vehicle after a dive.
CDFW photo by M. Prall

The interesting creatures and the physical structure and substance of the ocean bottom found along this portion of California’s central coast makes it a popular place for scientists to conduct research and ecosystem monitoring. In fact, Carmel Bay SMCA is the most researched MPA on the central coast. One of the more extensive collections of projects in this area is conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with various partners. These efforts include a wide range of projects in the Carmel area, from mapping the ocean floor to exploring the deep-ocean coral and sponge communities in the canyon using remotely operated vehicles. These communities survive with little or no light at depths of 150 to 10,000 feet and are home to many species ― perhaps some still to be discovered.

The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on the planet and the most unexplored. To make this hard-to-reach ecosystem more accessible and to share its wonders with the world, NOAA’s partner Ocean Exploration Trust has launched Nautilus Live to broadcast videos and livestreams of their expeditions.

Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach
CDFW photo by L. Slatoff

While this area is a hotbed for marine science, it is also an incredible place for some outdoor fun. Carmel Bay SMCA includes the beautiful Carmel Beach with its famous white sand. Easily accessible from shore, this MPA is great for kayakers, swimmers, surfers, and beachgoers. The soft sand makes for a relaxing walk and there is a wheelchair accessible dirt path just above the beach leading to Carmel Point, which overlooks the beach.

If you enjoy fishing, then you’re in luck! The recreational take of finfish is allowed within the SMCA, but remember that you must have a current fishing license if you are 16 years of age or older. The commercial take of kelp is also permitted in this SMCA. Don’t forget to check for local COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions before you visit.

Whether you want to enjoy a day in the sun, stroll on the white sand beach taking in the views, or dive below the waves to explore the mysterious world below, Carmel Bay SMCA will satisfy your desires for both relaxation and adventure.

Carmel Bay 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.

MPA logopost by Lara Slatoff, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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