Environmental Characteristics of Santa Cruz

As featured in the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve Book

By Kelly Vander Kaay - April 28, 2012

An Environmental  Piece for the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve Book

Situated along the northern edge of Monterey Bay, a little more than an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve lies within the coastal waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Covering 276 miles of shoreline and 6,094 square miles of ocean (larger than Yellowstone National Park), this federally protected area extends, on average, 30 miles from shore. At its deepest point, the sanctuary reaches down 12,713 feet, or more than two miles. It is our nation’s biggest marine sanctuary.

The Surfing Reserve encompasses about seven of the sanctuary’s 276 miles of coastline, including world-renowned right-hand point breaks Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. In all, some two dozen surf spots—point, reef, and beachbreaks, both famous and lesser known—fall within the reserve’s boundaries. Southfacing, Santa Cruz is well-protected from Central California’s prevailing northwest winds while also open to any swell direction except extreme north. Most of its beaches are overseen by California State Parks, the City of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County.

At Steamer Lane, surfers run past barking sea lions as they hustle toward the gladiator-like proving grounds where wave energy converges with abruptly sloping bedrock reefs. Here, world-class peaks are born. Often compared to those of the North Shore, these waves owe their existence to a fortuitous confluence of geology and oceanographic processes.

An Environmental Piece for the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve Book

The inner continental shelf near the reserve consists of flat sandy areas, faults, boulder fields, and complex bedrock ridges, the amalgamation of which provides the foundation for prolific marine ecosystems. Each spring when the northwest winds blow, cold, nutrient-rich waters rise up out of submarine canyons, nourishing lush growths of marine algae and surface plankton blooms. These provide sustenance for many invertebrates and fish, a key food source for
cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), and sea otters. Numerous species of sharks also inhabit the region, including blue, mako, and whites reaching more than 20 feet in length.

About World Surfing Reserves

World Surfing Reserves (WSR) proactively identifies, designates and preserves outstanding waves, surf zones and their surrounding environments around the world. The program serves as a global model for preserving wave breaks and their surrounding areas by recognizing the positive environmental, cultural, economic and community benefits of surfing areas.

To read more about the Santa Cruz WSR dedication ceremony and see photos, visit Save The Waves Coalition.

About the Book

I feel fortunate to have been involved in the creation of the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve Book, as both a writer and the book's designer.


The book features photography by Chris Burkard, Ryan Craig, Will Henry, Boots McGhee, Russell Ord, Rick Puckett, Ruben Ruiz, and Patrick Trefz, with historical and era photos courtesy of Geoffrey Dunn, O'Neill and The Harry Mayo Collection.

Intro by Richard Schmidt, history by Ben Marcus, an environmental piece by myself, and thoughts on Saving the World One Wave at a Time by Drew Campion. Edited by Steve Hawk.*

*For a complete list of credits, see the acknowledgments page at the end of the Santa Cruz WSR Book.

To learn more about World Surfing Reserves and/or download the Santa Cruz WSR Book (including the above-featured article), click here. Copies are also available at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Natural Bridges State Park Visitor Center, Monterery Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Aptos Visitor Center and Seacliff State Beach Visitor Center.