I’d heard good things about diving in the area, and wasn’t going to let the cold water deter me. Monterey Canyon is basically an underwater Grand Canyon, and who wouldn’t want to explore that?
As I geared up at Seven Seas Scuba in Cannery Row (true to form, the shop used to be an old sardine-canning warehouse), my guide, Louis, and I started chatting. “The beauty of this place is that the bay gets deep quickly,” he explained, “so you have world-class kelp forest diving just a few yards from shore.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. As we weaved our way through the kelp, a few curious sea lions darted playfully at us every so often as if taunting us to join their game.
That’s not all I’ll remember about the dive, though. I’ll remember being extremely cold (as in my-head-is-going-to-pop-off cold) and spotting a newly discovered creature.
Before our dive, Louis had mentioned that a new species of nudibranch had just been identified by researchers at nearby Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station (who aptly named it the Hopkins rose), and lamented that he had yet to come across one since the discovery, even though he dove the waters where they were found several times a day.
Then, halfway through the dive, there they were — two unabashedly flamboyant Hopkins roses waving their hot pink tendrils at us through the muted grey and brown tones of the water. Pretty serendipitous, right?
When we came up for air, it was time to hug the bay all the way to Santa Cruz — otherwise known as “Surf City” (Santa Cruz is mentioned by name in The Beach Boys‘ classic song, “Surfin’ U.S.A.“) — en route to San Francisco.
A reader had tipped me off to the not-yet-opened National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center (it will be unveiled to the public at the end of July), so I called up their education specialist, Jeff Rosaler, and asked for a special preview.
The center sits kitty-corner to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk and wharf, so it’s right in the thick of it — just like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But unlike its famous neighbor to the south, which charges $35 admission, the Exploration Center will be FREE to the public.
FREE. Love that word.
It’s free because Monterey Bay is one of 14 National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S., so the federal government (in partnership with the City of Santa Cruz) is footing the bill (insert political commentary here).
Jeff told me that the goal of the Exploration Center is to get people interested in the ocean, and then to get them outside — to go snorkeling, diving, kayaking, swimming, whatever. “We want this to be a jumping off point,” he said as he smoothed his beard.
On my behind-the-scenes tour of the LEED-certified building, it became more than clear that it wasn’t going to be another old-school interpretive center. The vision for this place is multimedia-driven all the way, catering to a generation that thrives on uber-stimulation.
Check this out:
- They have a huge flat screen at the entrance which will show visitors real-time info about the bay — what critters are up to, what the waves are doing, etc.
- Kids can crawl into a giant storm drain underneath a “road” and learn about how urban runoff and pollution affect our oceans. I wish I had seen this when I was young.
- Another exhibit features a giant tank filled with sea creature models that kids can remotely control from an ROV-style machine above the tank.
- The center has a telescope that lets you see how the bay has been transformed over the years. For instance, you can see what it looks like today versus what it would have looked like if it hadn’t been protected.
This is just a taste of the 20+ interactive exhibits that will be FREE to the public starting this summer, so be sure to pay it a visit the next time you pass through Santa Cruz — and say ‘hello’ to Jeff for me!
Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer
Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.