Underwater Yosemite

By PAUL ROGERS San Jose Mercury News
Wednesday January 02, 2002

MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) — With thick kelp forests and exotic wildlife, Monterey Bay has been described more than once as an underwater Yosemite. Now, the ocean expanse will get one of the true trappings of a national park, a visitor center. 

Fulfilling a decade-long dream of former Congressman Leon Panetta and other bay supporters, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — America’s largest protected ocean area — secured preliminary funding from Congress in December. 

The funding came Nov. 28, when President Bush signed the Department of Commerce budget bill, which included $1.25 million for planning and other work on the project. 

Next month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to award a contract for a feasibility study. Construction could start in 2003. 

“This is great,” said Panetta, now chairman of the Pew Oceans Commission, a non-profit group studying ocean issues nationwide. 

“The problem with the ocean is that we tend to take it for granted. In Monterey Bay, you’ve got a canyon that is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, for example. So few people really know about the sea life there. A center like this will give us a chance to see what lies beneath.” 

While in Congress representing Monterey and Santa Cruz, Panetta blocked efforts by the Reagan administration to allow offshore oil drilling off Big Sur and the San Mateo County coast. He wrote the bill that established the sanctuary boundaries along 276 miles of coastline from the Marin Headlands to Hearst Castle, banning oil drilling forever in the area. The bill was signed into law in 1992. 

During that era, Panetta repeatedly said he hoped the public would have a place similar to a national park visitor center to learn about the marine environment, central coast history and the extensive underwater research in Monterey Bay. 

A location hasn’t been chosen yet, said William Douros, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, headquartered in Monterey. 

But Douros said the three leading sites so far are Santa Cruz, possibly on the Municipal Wharf or at the old Depot site near the wharf; Monterey, in the Custom House Plaza area at the foot of Fisherman’s Wharf; or in Aptos, on state park property on the bluffs above Seacliff State Beach. 

“We’ll want to describe what a marine sanctuary is, why it is there, what is out there and what people can do to protect it,” Douros said. 

Douros said he envisions a building of about 8,000 to 12,000 square feet. There would be exhibits on wildlife and history, along with information telling people where they could fish, boat, walk along the beach or find other activities. 

There also probably will be a children’s classroom for field trips, a small gift shop and a screening room for a sanctuary video, similar to national park visitor centers, or the Elkhorn Slough visitor center, he said. In addition, the center could have exhibits on all 12 of the nation’s marine sanctuaries. 

“You might have a panel of monitors, and you could say ’Let’s go to the coral reef in the Florida Keys, let’s go to a bird colony in the Farallon Islands,”’ he said. “That’s one of the exciting things we are looking at.” 

Douros said if the eventual site is at Seacliff State Beach, it could be jointly run by state park employees, local volunteers or NOAA staff. Because of its location, that site also could allow the building to have a deck with telescopes looking out onto the ocean, he said. 

After the feasibility study is finished next summer, there will be public meetings, Douros said. The eventual total cost could be $5 million to $8 million, he said. 

Seacliff State Beach already receives more than 1 million visitors a year and has a small visitor center near the Palo Alto, an abandoned ship made of cement and moored offshore. 

Dave Vincent, superintendent of the Santa Cruz state parks region, said he likes the idea, and that the 5-acre site atop the bluffs now is used only as an occasional overflow parking lot. Money could come from private donations and future state parks bonds, he said. 

“It would have panoramic views,” Vincent said. “There are just sweeping vistas there. We could also use it as a hub to refer people to Long Marine Lab and the Monterey Aquarium and other places.” 

There is plenty to study. The sanctuary is home to 26 species of marine mammals, 94 species of seabirds, at least 345 different kinds of fish and 1,276 known shipwrecks.