Cool Off and Conserve: 7 Marine Sanctuary Destinations for Your Next Vacation

Part 1 of 2 (part 2 coming next week)

Planning your next vacation is always a delight, especially when you can add in an ecological twist. This year, get ready to help the environment and enjoy the water when you visit one of the National Marine Sanctuary System’s sanctuaries or monuments.

What is a sanctuary, exactly? Greenpeace defines them as “large areas where you don’t take anything, break anything or pollute anything.” These protected areas give fish, marine mammals, aquatic plant life and more a place to grow and live with minimal human interference.

Whether you’re hoping to watch whales on their majestic migrations, get up close and personal with coral reefs, or simply enjoy some camping with a terrific view, we’ve got a destination for you. Check out 7 of our favorite options for this year’s travels in Part I of our two-part series exploring these amazing marine environments (and be sure to check out Part II, coming soon!).

1. Olympic Coast

Everyone loves a good Pacific Northwest adventure in the summer, when you can avoid all that rain. Okay, not all of it … but at least some! Enjoy camping, hiking and birding along this traditional Native American waterway, or go clamming for your own dinner in the marshy Pacific sands. You can help support the protection efforts by buying seafood from the Native American fisherman who work in tandem with conservationists to safeguard this marine sanctuary.

2. Monitor

History and wildlife conservation all rolled into one? Yes, please! Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is located off the coast of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. In addition to protecting flora and fauna, it also shelters a famous Civil War shipwreck – only discovered in 1973 – not to mention the graves of its fallen heroes. Head to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virgina, and support the conservation efforts by buying a ticket. Enjoy the museum’s Monitor Center to complete the experience.

3. Florida Keys

Famed as a glorious vacation destination, the Florida Keys are also a critical piece in the overall puzzle that is our nation’s – and our world’s – marine environment. In addition to some fine archeological finds, the area embraces more than six thousand different marine species. Given that the Sanctuary brings in $4.4 billion annually and provides more than 70,000 jobs, you contribute to the conservation effort simply by being there. So boat, float, fish, dive and snorkel away!

4. Gray’s Reef

Proud to be one of the largest near-shore live-bottom reefs in the southeastern United States, Gray’s Reef boasts more than 200 species of fish and 400 invertebrates. Enjoy some fishing, sailing or diving to see the reefs. The southern third of the reef is research-only, barred to recreation, but feel free to reach out and discover how you can help in these efforts.

5. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale

We need homes and so do whales. Believe it or not, simply coming for a view of the gorgeous humpback whales who live in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary helps our conservation efforts a lot: Whale watching contributes $74 million dollars annually to the Sanctuary and surrounding communities. While you’re here, why not enjoy sun, surf, sand and swimming with sea turtles?

6. Flower Garden Banks

The only National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, Flower Garden Banks is a true melting pot of water and life. The recipient of water flowing from more than 30 states as well as Canada, this area includes amazing salt domes (underwater mountains), incredible coral reefs, whales, fish, invertebrates, rays, birds and more. Contribute to the annual scientific cruises, or boost the economy by enjoying some of the many water adventures offered in the area: fishing, diving, turtle-viewing and more.

7. Channel Islands

California, as well-known as it is for coastal beauty, is practically synonymous with the ocean. You can contribute to maintaining that reputation with a visit to the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties way down south. Spot sea turtles, whales and birds galore, and consider volunteering for a beach cleanup or research effort while you’re there.


The National Marine Sanctuary System includes a broad swath of protected ocean and lake life. We support America’s 13 national sanctuaries and two national monuments, giving you plenty of options when it comes to picking a travel destination.