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Santa Cruz's Marine Sanctuary

A free museum in Santa Cruz celebrates the diversity of the marine life on California's central coast.

Harbor Seal at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Santa Cruz, Calif., image
Photo caption
A harbor seal model welcomes visitors at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center.

Now you can immerse yourself in the Pacific Ocean without wetting a toe. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, a free museum near Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, Calif., celebrates a wild preserve that reaches from the Golden Gate to south of Big Sur.

The 5,575-square-mile sanctuary, designated in 1992, offers refuge to everything from sea turtles and blue whales to elephant seals and sea otters. “The wildlife viewing here is unparalleled,” says Superintendent Paul Michel. Inside the center, the diversity of marine life is a major theme, as in a floor-to-ceiling mock-up of a thriving kelp forest.

A geology gallery and digital video theater take you to a deep-sea volcano and a marine canyon. From a remote-control panel, you can pilot a submarine through the canyon, re-created in a two-story aquarium, to spy vivid replicas of strange sea denizens such as the tumbleweed anemone and Dumbo octopus.

Despite its bounty, the sanctuary faces threats, says Program Manager Lisa Uttal. In the watersheds exhibit, turn a wheel to see how rainfall onshore contributes to pollution offshore. “That’s a key point,” Uttal says. “What we do on land affects the ocean.” (831) 421-9993,

Photography by David H. Collier

This article was first published in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.