Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area

Van Damme SMCA
Purple Urchin and Pinto Abalone
Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)
Red urchin and red abalone


Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) is adjacent to Van Damme State Beach and Van Damme State Park. A common stop for fisherman, kayakers and divers, Van Damme SMCA is a north coast treasure. Containing a mix of rocky reef, sandy bottom and kelp forest habitats, this marine protected area (MPA) is home to a wide variety of fishes, marine mammals and invertebrates. Van Damme SMCA is a popular site for diver training, kayak tours and abalone diving.

Marine protected areas protect the diversity and abundance of marine life, the habitats they depend on, and the integrity of marine ecosystems.


About Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area

sea urchins underwater
Sea Urchins; © Steven Howard, all rights reserved

The geological features around Van Damme SMCA are the result of great forces exerted by three tectonic plates (North American Plate, Pacific Plate, and Gorda Plate). These plates converge where the San Andreas fault heads out to sea at Cape Mendocino in an area known as the Mendocino Triple Junction.The offshore area includes many eroded coastal land forms such as sea stacks, sea arches, and sea caves, which makes for spectacular landscapes and places to explore.

Protected from chilly northern winds, this SMCA contains both rocky reef and sandy bottom habitats submerged in cold, high action north coast waters. From record size red abalone to various species of rockfish, Van Damme SMCA is known for rich biodiversity.

Little River empties into Van Damme SMCA, and is the source of most of the sand forming the beach. Although this sand blankets the bottom of the bay, there are numerous rocky reefs and outcroppings throughout the SMCA that are easy to access, especially at low tide.

The rocky reefs and outcroppings at Van Damme typically support a wealth of marine algae, especially bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), an annual canopy-forming seaweed that thrives in the cold, nutrient-rich upwelled water common to the northern coast of California. Bull kelp can form dense patches known as kelp forests that support a diverse and abundant array of marine organisms, including invertebrates (abalone, sea urchins, crabs, seastars, nudibranchs, rock scallops, etc.) and fish (Cabezon, Lingcod, and many species of rockfish, greenlings, and surfperch). Despite its size and hardy appearance, bull kelp is an annual kelp; it is usually ripped out by fall and winter storms, only to grow back in the spring and summer months. Kelp ripped off the rocks by big waves is usually deposited on the beach or is carried out into deeper water, where it decomposes and contributes to the food chain in those environments.

Southern Overlook at Van Damme State Beach; CDFW photo by L. Kashiwada
Southern Overlook at Van Damme State Beach; CDFW photo by L. Kashiwada

Van Damme SMCA is within the traditional tribal territory of the Northern Coast Pomo peoples, who remain culturally connected to this place. Descendants of original Coast Pomo peoples are members of various federally recognized Tribes that are located within the north coast region.

Local Tribes continue to gather, hunt, fish, and harvest a variety of marine and estuarine species in order to maintain their traditional lifeways. These tribes are active and integral stewards of the coastal ecosystem, as were their ancestors for countless generations.

Russian and Aleutian fur trappers arrived in this area during the early 1800s, and between 1864 and 1893 lumber operations flourished near Little River. Charles Van Damme, namesake of this SMCA as well as the adjacent State Park and State Beach, was born at the mouth of the Little River in 1881. He was a successful operator of the Richmond-San Rafael ferry line.

Dive Float; © Steven Howard, all rights reserved

Van Damme SMCA is an embayment protected from waves on the north and south, and from wind on the north. The water is generally calmer than on the open coast just outside the boundaries of this SMCA, making it a popular location for fishermen (from the beach, in a boat, or spearfishing), scuba divers, free divers, open-water swimmers, kayakers, beachcombers, and picnickers. The scenic sea stacks, sea caves, and rocky reefs along with productive kelp beds provide plenty of opportunities for both consumptive and non-consumptive use.

Recreational take of all species consistent with current CDFW regulations is allowed along with the commercial take of all species except bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) and giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). It is relatively easy to launch a kayak, paddle board, or small inflatable boat into the water because the parking lot is directly adjacent to the gently sloping beach (note: there is no boat launch so all boats must be hand-carried or pushed from the parking lot to the water). Pit toilets, picnic benches, BBQ pits, and outdoor showers are available at the beach.

Photo Gallery

Video Gallery

Site Resources


It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT:

Commercial and recreational take in accordance with current regulations is allowed. Commercial take of bull kelp and giant kelp is prohibited.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, section 632(b)(26)


This area is bounded by the mean high tide line and a straight line connecting the following points: 39° 16.335' N. lat. 123° 47.712' W. long.; and 39° 16.147' N. lat. 123° 47.429' W. long.

Map of Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area - link opens in new window

Fact Sheet

thumbnail of fact sheet - click to enlarge in new window