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by Emily Abbink
Did you know there’s a major volcano about an hour from Monterey?
Or a “Grand Canyon” minutes from Santa Cruz? Plus acres of dense, unexplored forest right along our coast?
It’s all true, though few of us have ever seen them. They are all underwater in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), home to one of the world’s largest and most diverse ecosystems.
Now, a newly opened Exploration Center in Santa Cruz allows us to see what has previously been hidden in deep waters. Overlooking the bay near the Boardwalk and Municipal Wharf, the center, which opened in July, features a giant tank display, outdoor deck, theater and many fascinating exhibits – all for free.
Designed to serve the entire central coast, the Exploration Center celebrates our relationship with the bay.
“The real key is making connections from the land to the sea,” says Lisa Uttal, marine biologist and the center’s program manager.
This is why the center highlights how land-sea connections, such as oil spills, floating rubbish and weather, shape our everyday life.
As the sanctuary’s official gateway and interpretive center, an estimated 200,000 people are expected to visit annually, complementing the Seymour Center in Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey.
Formed in 1992, the sanctuary is North America’s largest marine preserve, protecting 6,094 square ocean miles between the Golden Gate and Hearst Castle. This “watery national park” supports many marine ecosystems, providing homes for seabirds, marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, plants and concentrated human settlements along its shores.
If that weren’t enough, the sanctuary also harbors 150 documented shipwrecks.
Our coast’s dense land and sea populations are no accident. The same habitat diversity promoting abundant sea life also offers humans a wide variety of foods, employment and activities – from commercial fishing and recreational sports to scientific and historic research.
But to continue enjoying our wonderful bay, residents must safeguard it. According to the legendary ocean filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, we “need to be aware of and understand the issues facing the MBNMS in order to be good caretakers of the sanctuary.”
The Exploration Center is the place to learn.
Don’t bother hunting for your wetsuit. At the center, the underwater volcano, canyon and forest are all very explorable, “up close and personal,” thanks to high-tech, user-friendly viewing equipment.
You’ll learn, for example, about the Davidson Seamount, one of the world’s largest underwater volcanoes, with enough mass (if we could move it) to fill up the entire bay – from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Pacific Ocean has more than 30,000 such seamounts, but few have been studied. Because the Davidson is so close, major expeditions have begun exploring its blocky lava flows that are home to deep-sea sponges, fish, crabs, basket stars and rare, unnamed species.
“We were blown away by the size, age and diversity of deep-water corals,” explains Chief Marine Scientist Andrew DeVogelaere.
You can join a virtual expedition of current Davidson Seamount research on the Exploration Center’s large-screen video.
You can also take a tour of the bay’s “Grand Canyon,” which extends 95 miles, from Moss Landing’s shallow waters to deep sea, ending in a vast submarine delta.
The canyon hosts a wide range of habitats and incredible organism diversity, as shown in the Exploration Center’s huge water tank display that’s filled with rarely seen deep-sea animals and rock formations.
Walk through the center’s kelp forest and tide-pool re-creation with touchable sea-stars and urchins. Hear waves, whales and sea lions, as marine birds “glide” through the canopy overhead.
Explore different kelp forest zones via a large rear-projection screen with interactive controls.
An open ocean mini-theater projects beautiful footage of migratory species, including sea turtles, dolphins, krill and whales, and the sanctuary’s seasonal effects on weather, surface conditions and kelp forest growth.
The center’s outside deck offers spectacular views of the bay itself.
By helping families discover our central coast, the new Exploration Center aims to educate visitors about our fascinating marine marvels and the personal role in protecting this national treasure at our doorsteps.
Come see for yourself!
Emily Abbink is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz.
35 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.
Admission: FREE. Wed.-Sun. 10am-5pm.
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