It is one of those observations that seldom alight in our awareness. A realization too grandiose and, at the same time, too ethereal to take hold. Unless we pause. Then we savor what an astonishing thing is at hand: The greatest of California's many natural wonders remains hidden at our doorstep.
The largest animals that ever lived, bigger than dinosaurs, are swimming out there now on the other side of Highway 1. Just beyond the beach, a canyon drops away as deep as the Grand Canyon, and barely explored. Within sight of our cities and from fresh-charged currents of seawater as clean as anywhere in the world, hunter-gatherers pursue tonight's dinner. Beneath, the fuel of our economy has collected in ancient pools of oil just for the taking.
And we must consider ourselves too, the ever-growing millions of people who crowd the shoreline with our homes and farms and industry and diversions. We eat from these waters and play in them. At the same time, we assault their purity with sewage and pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Not so long ago, we deposited worse--our radioactive waste. The heaving surface of this sea is our economic highway to countries of the Pacific Rim.
It is little wonder that California's tiny claim on the Pacific challenges our capacity to comprehend. Only intermittently do headline events awaken the larger public interest. Like oil spills.
Beginning 20 years ago, Congress and federal regulators were drawn to California to block the spread of offshore drilling. No-oil zones were proclaimed in 1980, 1981, 1989, 1992. National Marine Sanctuaries, these areas were called. From Ventura north to Sonoma County, these four odd-shaped tracts of California ocean encompass almost half of the surface area of the 12 National Marine Sanctuaries designated so far nationwide.
Perhaps if these places had been called "petroleum-free marine zones" matters would have rested. But "sanctuary" is a powerful word. It carries an ecclesiastic promise of protection, refuge, asylum. Sacred ground, as it were.
Congress implied so when writing the sanctuary act. It claimed perpetual guardianship of these waters. But it imposed conflicting requirements too. Fishing, for one thing, was to be "facilitated" at the same time the resource was to be preserved.
It was an artful, please-everyone compromise. These underwater areas were of such importance as to rate the protective aura of national parks. At the same time, commercial and sporting uses would be encouraged, as in national forests.
Sooner or later, the two visions would have to collide.
Today, faster than many ever expected, the Clinton administration is moving to tilt the balance of sanctuaries toward greater preservation. After years of skeleton staffs and modest ambitions, the sanctuaries are growing: bigger budgets, more confidence, sharper teeth. Responding to critics who want more sanctuary in their sanctuaries, the administration and its field managers have embarked on a site-by-site reevaluation of the system, with a promise of making tomorrow's protected areas of the ocean, somehow, more protected.
Whether too far or not far enough is a matter of rising interest. But the process of re-imagining America's underwater sanctuaries is underway, and in a fashion so novel and homespun that it could be called an experiment in 21st century postmodern resource governance. That is, the federal government is seeking to rule by consensus instead of by fiat.
"The program is in a process of dynamic change," says Dan Basta, the energetic director of the National Marine Sanctuaries. "I see the future as helping to take the nation to a new level of protection and conservation of its living marine resources."
Just as with terrestrial parks, marine sanctuaries arose from two imperatives: nature and politics.
From a naturalist's vantage, California's sanctuaries at the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank are the underwater equivalent of rain forests. The same as on land, certain marine habitats provide more shelter and better growing conditions than other places. California's sanctuaries are among the most advantageous areas for sea life anywhere on America's coasts.
The contours of the bottom are knifed with canyons and studded with seamounts, pinnacles and islands. A narrow continental shelf, swirling currents and prevailing offshore winds combine to draw deep water toward the surface, bathing these regions in the soupy nutrients of life. Groves of kelp harbor teeming colonies of flora and fauna.
The midsection of California also happens to be a convergence zone where warm waters of Mexico meet cold waters of Alaska. Thus, the periodic shifts in ocean temperature that we know as La Nina and El Nino, and the slower-scale cycles of oceanic shifts that are barely understood, bring ever-changing variety to the fish and other pelagic creatures offshore.