Five Fun Things to do in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Surfer in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Douglas Croft

California’s Monterey Bay earned the nickname of “Serengeti of the Sea” because of the diverse and abundant wildlife that call its waters home. In addition to being beautiful, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is incredibly fun! Whether you prefer in-water adventures or land-based activities, there is something for everyone. Here are five things we love to do when we visit Monterey Bay: 


*Check for COVID-19 conditions, closures, and policies before traveling*


Hop in a kayak and explore the rich habitats and (respectfully) admire the incredible wildlife that make Monterey Bay famous. Some animals you might see include crabs, jellies, sea lions, otters, and seals. If you’re lucky, you might spot whales and dolphins in the distance! Looking for a specific species? Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary makes it easy to find out which animals are around in a given season with their wildlife calendar.  

For a guided educational experience, you can check out local kayak tour operators to learn about the sanctuary, wildlife, and all things ocean. To visit on your own, check out the available kayak access points map to see which location is best for you. 


Diving and Snorkeling

With 6,094 miles of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to explore, you’re sure to see something amazing beneath the surface, especially in the kelp forests!  This is why the sanctuary is a popular spot for snorkel and dive tourism. The rocky shores and reefs are great for seeing vibrant and colorful sponges, anemones, and corals, along with reef animals like octopus and colorful fish.  Farther out, the kelp forests are a great destination for maneuvering through giant kelp canopies that tower from the seafloor and seeing the animals that depend on them such as sea otters and sea birds. And finally, the open ocean is where you might see whales, dolphins, sharks, and unique fish like mola mola

Visibility here peaks at 60 feet between September and November and averages 20 to 30 feet the rest of the year. For more about where to dive and what to see in Monterey Bay, click here.  



Hang ten in Monterey Bay no matter your skill level! The sanctuary experiences both massive waves to small breaks. Several local operators offer lessons for beginners and there is rarely a shortage of surfers on the beaches for more seasoned surfers looking to meet new people. The most famous spot in the sanctuary for powerful waves is Mavericks on Half Moon Bay. Here, the waves can crest as high as 50 feet and it’s a test for even the most experienced surfers. For more modest waves, Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz is popular – actually one of the most popular surfing destinations on the West Coast. Northern California surfing pioneers like Jack O’Neill made this spot popular and gave rise to the modern wetsuit and board leash.

For information about other popular surfing spots throughout the sanctuary, check out this guide

Northern Elephant Seals in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Robert Schwemmer

Seal, Seal Lion, and Sea Otter Watching 

All wildlife viewing in Monterey Bay is an incredible experience but the abundance of sea lions, seals, and sea otters in the area all year round makes them a must-see! It’s one of the best places for seeing them at any time of the year. Four species are the most common in the sanctuary, including harbor seals, elephant seals, southern sea otters, and california sea lions.  

You can often see sea lions resting on buoys in the water or on the rocky shores, and most often you will see harbor seals and elephant seals resting on the shore. Elephant seals are quite gregarious, especially during breeding and pupping season when males are battling each other for mating privileges. Otters are smaller, furrier, and lack the thick blubber seen on seals and sea lions. They are abundant near kelp forests, where they hunt and rest. You may even see an otter wrap itself in kelp leaves to anchor itself while it rests to avoid drifting away! 

Want to know when and where to see them? They tend to hand out in docks and boats around Fisherman’s Wharf, the Coastguard jetty, Point Lobos Nature Reserve, Cannery Row and Moss Landing Harbor.  Sea lions can also be spotted swimming close to shore!

Remember to read Monterey Bay’s wildlife viewing tips before you go to make sure you’re practicing your ocean etiquette. Marine mammals are protected species in the United States; it is both illegal and dangerous to approach them too closely, feed them, or otherwise disturb their natural behaviors.

Visitor Center: Sanctuary Exploration Center

To learn more about Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the wonders it protects, check out the Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz. The center has state of the art exhibits and interactive displays that highlight the sanctuary’s history, ecology, and programs. You can learn about research in the sanctuary, significant shipwrecks, experience diving without getting in the water, and more. The Center also features a top deck for an incredible view overlooking the ocean and getting a panoramic view of that portion of the sanctuary.

*Note: the Sanctuary Exploration Center is closed to the public due to COVID-19 but the waters remain open. In the meantime, take a look at some of these virtual adventures/webcams to experience the Center and the sanctuary from the comfort of your home:

Diver in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Chad King