One of the greatest joys that an ocean lover can experience is the thrill of sliding alongside a breaking wave. Add in hundreds of miles of magnificent coastline and a great diversity of wildlife and it’s no wonder that California is America’s surf paradise. Whether renting a surfboard as a novelty in Southern California or trekking into deep wilderness on the northern end of the state, your surf experience is enhanced when you choose to paddle out in one of California’s 124 marine protected areas.
This statewide system of ocean protection is the only one of its kind in the country, exemplifying California’s leadership on the natural resource protection front. This month marks the first anniversary of the network’s completion– but you can check out some of California’s best and most wild surf spots all year round.
These “underwater parks” safeguard sea life as varied as the garibaldi fish swimming in La Jolla’s eelgrass to the curious sea otters commonly found in Santa Cruz’s kelp beds. Within the marine protected areas lie dozens of reefs, points, river mouths and beach breaks that attract surfers from beginners to expert. What follows is a variety of suggestions where both waves and marine life thrive.
Russian Rivermouth (Russian River State Marine Conservation Area ), Jenner. Like most rivermouth waves, the Russian’s bar depends on how the sand flow shapes things up. When it’s on, the wave jacks up into an epic right barrel. But you won’t be surfing here alone; on the spit, a fat raft of harbor seals keeps watch, while curious pups roll into the water to join you and great blue herons fish in the shallows.
Mavericks (Pillar Point State Marine Conservation Area ), Half Moon Bay. Everyone identifies Mavericks as a famed monster wave spot, but the waters around the break also have a long history of being protected. The Pillar Point SMCA was created in 2010, adding to existing protections of nearby Montara (formerly Fitzgerald) State Marine Reserve to protect the reef at Mavericks. Surfers regularly encounter dolphins and harbor seals and during the end of the winter surf season, will occasionally be graced with the presence of a migrating gray whale or two. Pillar Point Harbor Beach (the access point for Mavericks) is also a great spot for bird-watching and, during a low tide, exploring the incredible lava reef tide pools.
Año Nuevo (Año Nuevo State Marine Conservation Area ), Pescadero. Año Nuevo is fickle, but when conditions line up, it fires. Best to surf inside the cove and admire the marine life from afar, especially the seabirds that nest in the rock wall adjacent to the surf break and the huge elephant seals – Año Nuevo is a breeding ground for the magnificent creatures – sunbathing on the beach.
Natural Bridges (Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve ), Santa Cruz. Because Natural Bridges is a sheltered right-hand reef break, the surf is relatively consistent. Because it’s in Santa Cruz, the skill level skews intermediate to expert, important during the west swells that make for fast rights peeling off either of two reefs. There’s incredible tide pooling at low tides, and surfers will note the abundance of kelp and eelgrass, along with the occasional sea otter or harbor seal.
Asilomar (Asilomar State Marine Reserve ), Monterey Peninsula. Asilomar beach’s white sand makes for a dramatic, turquoise water surf setup. Leopard sharks swim below, visible to the naked eye. The protections for this beach break extend around the peninsula, capturing some of the reef waves that occasionally break during winter swells. Surfers in Monterey will see otters and harbor seals swimming through the abundant beds of giant and bull kelp on nearly any day of the year.
Campus Point (Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area ), Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara's many point breaks lie dormant in the summer, shadowed by the Channel Islands, but come alive in winter. Campus Point is one of the favorites, boasting several sections and a fast inside wall when the tide’s low. Since the point stands across the street from the UCSB dorms, be prepared to share with swarms of wave-starved students. Keep your calm in the crowd by studying the surf grass for perch, silversides and maybe even a patrolling white seabass. Register the squads of pelicans, and cram the shallows for foraging egrets and herons. Now you’re making the grade.
Point Dume (Point Dume State Marine Reserve ), Malibu. This is an ideal point break for experienced surfers unafraid of a 20-minute walk and climb over the rocks and a desire to surf among movie stars. A regional classic, surfing at or around Point Dume brings the ocean experience into focus. An offshore canyon funnels waves and fish food into dense, wave grooming kelp forests where large sheephead, fat rockfish and the occasional humpback whale rub elbows. Ocean wilderness, Hollywood style!
La Jolla Peninsula (South La Jolla State Marine Reserve ), San Diego. Several famous reef breaks dot the unique La Jolla Peninsula. On the north end lies Bird Rock, the biological center of the reserve and Scripps Institution of Oceanography study site. Be amazed by the rare wave-cut marine terraces hosting an astonishing number of sea birds. Below the surface, the abundance of kelp and surfgrass are home to a similarly impressive array of sea life. Travel south to Pacific Beach, and watch for iconic waterman Skip Frye – he of the beloved “fish”-shaped board – around whom an entire subculture is centered. Finally, beginners should check out Tourmaline, a user-friendly break at the south end of the peninsula. Key creatures to look for along the entirety of the reserve include abalone, yellowtail, brown pelicans, sea lions and even the occasional migrating grey whale.