By Chris Adams

They are right there – just off the coastal highways, extending for miles into the oceans. But many people don’t even know they exist.

“One of our biggest challenges is awareness,” said Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, just off the coast of California near San Francisco.

Michel and William Douros, West Coast regional director for  NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, described the system to National Press Foundation fellows, who then explored the sanctuary on the research vessel Fulmar. (On that often-rocky ride, fellows watched sanctuary scuba divers go into the waters to take videos of kelp forests off the Monterey coast.)

Douros and Michel detailed the history and scope of the sanctuaries system, which includes 16 locations off both coasts and in the Great Lakes. The Monterey Bay site, for example, runs from just north of the Golden Gate Bridge to as far south as San Luis Obispo County in Central California – a total of 276 miles of shoreline. It’s about the size of Connecticut and is home to 36 marine mammals, more than 180 species of birds, 525 fishes and four types of turtles.

That incredible biodiversity is why Douros calls it the “Serengeti of the Sea.”

The sanctuaries aren’t walled off from use – they encourage multiple uses consistent with protecting the resources within.

But they are the focus of research efforts by government and other scientists. Among those efforts: to understand and protect deep sea corals, assess the impact of off-shore wind farms, and study the impact of “seal bombs” and other sounds that are used by commercial fishermen to boost their catch but might affect other marine life.