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California Coastal Ranger Q&A

Samantha Murray watches over 124 marine protected areas along the California Coast.

Samantha Murray at San Francisco’s Pier 45, image
Photo caption
Coastal ranger Samantha Murray pays a call on San Francisco's Pier 45.


If you think of oceans as underwater parks, Samantha Murray is like a coastal ranger. As director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Pacific Program, she oversees a recently completed network of 124 marine protected areas, aquatic reserves along the California coast.

Q How much territory is involved?
A California has 1,100 miles of coastline, and the state waters extend three miles out. We have 16 percent of those waters under some form of protection in reserves.

Q What does that mean, exactly?
A In the reserves, you can swim, dive, boat, surf, or picnic. But unless you’re doing research, you’re not allowed to take or harvest anything.

Q Any amazing animal sightings?
A At Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas, the elephant seals are pretty magical. They can top 20 feet and 8,800 pounds, and they have long, trunklike snouts. One look, and you understand how they got their name.

Q Best place to explore tide pools?
A Montara reserve in San Mateo County is a hot spot of biodiversity, with turban snails, crabs, striped mollusks called gumboot chitons, and sunflower sea stars, which are beautiful and hunt red sea urchins— an action scene in superslow motion.

Q How about for viewing birds?
A Humboldt Bay is one of the best areas, with more than 250 species: egrets, herons, terns, Pacific brant, Aleutian cackling geese—you name it. Get out in a kayak and you may spot leopard sharks and bat rays.

Q Your favorite coastal reserve?
A Point Lobos, near Monterey, is up there. Not only does it have some of the best diving in the Pacific, but you can spot sea otters, sea lions, and dolphins. It’s a reminder that if you give the ocean some space, it knows what to do.

Photography by Anne Hammersky

This article was first published in May 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.