Point Conception State Marine Reserve

a white and red lighthouse sits on a green patch of grass upon a layered rock cliffside, white seafoam splashes up the cliffside

Overview

Point Conception State Marine Reserve (SMR) is the point where the coast of California changes dramatically. The majority of California’s coastline runs in a predominantly north-south direction for more than 500 miles, from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara County. Just past Vandenberg Space Force Base (previously Vandenberg Air Force Base), about 45 miles west of the city of Santa Barbara, the coastline takes an abrupt turn and runs east-west, beginning a curve that forms the Southern California Bight, the curved coastline between Point Conception and San Diego and the area of the Pacific Ocean defined by that curve. This change in direction, marked by Point Conception and the Point Conception Lighthouse, is accompanied by dramatic changes in weather, currents, and ecosystems, which combine to make the marine communities some of the most productive in the world.

Point Conception SMR is located along this point and encompasses more than 22 square miles of marine and coastal habitat. This marine protected area (MPA) contains kelp forests, surfgrass beds, and rocky reefs surrounded by sandy seafloor, diverse fish and invertebrate marine life, and abundant marine mammals. The surrounding terrestrial area was operated for more than 100 years as a cattle ranch, and the land and waters straddling Point Conception are a time capsule of oak woodlands, coastal prairies, and beaches whose breaks are revered by surfers.

Regulations

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

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(96)California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(96)(opens in new tab)

Quick Facts

MPA size: 22.52 square miles

Shoreline span: 3.7 miles

Depth range: 0 to 489 feet

Habitat composition:

  • Rock: 1.70 square miles
  • Sand/mud: 20.85 square miles

Photo Gallery

Video Gallery

Southern California Marine Protected Area Highlights


California's MPA Network

About Point Conception State Marine Reserve

Natural History

on the seafloor, a large rock covered in red algae is surrounded by numerous brown kelp blades, extending to the surface
Kelp and algae in Point Conception SMR. photo © R. Schwemmer/NOAA

Point Conception, at the northwestern edge of the Southern California Bight, experiences dynamic mixing of cold, nutrient-rich water moving south with the California Current and warmer water moving north from the tropics. On the south-facing coast of Point Conception, waters are more protected and relatively warm; this warm water combines with cold water from the west-facing coast of Point Conception. This intersection of mixing between warm and cooler waters creates an incredibly productive area populated with copper rockfish, greenspotted rockfish, wolf-eel, red rock crab, squat lobster, brittle stars, and bubblegum coral. 

The area around Point Conception SMR is a mix of volcanic and marine terrace formations that have been carved by waves and wind to create protected coves, rocky reefs, sandy beaches, exposed intertidal zones, surfgrass beds, and some small creek-mouth estuary systems. The area also has natural petroleum deposits; these “tar mounds” are slowly pushed to the surface of the seafloor by shifting tectonic plates. 

Offshore, whales frequently cruise past the point during migrations, while tuna, white seabass, and sharks are commonly found in the open ocean. Closer to shore, kelp forests provide refuge for sea otters, vermilion rockfish, gorgonian corals, moray eels, harbor seals, and other mammals, fishes, and invertebrates.

Cultural History

algae covered rocks meet white foam from gently rolling deep blue colored waves, rolling hills extend along the horizon at Point Conception SMR
Looking towards Cojo Bay, near Point Conception. photo © R. Schwemmer/NOAA

For centuries, Native American Tribes in California have relied on marine and coastal resources. Many Native American Tribes in California continue to regularly harvest marine resources within their ancestral territories and maintain relationships with the coast for ongoing customary uses. The areas surrounding Point Conception and much of the central coast have been home to a populous and prosperous native people known as the Chumash. The productive marine ecosystem still plays an important role in the lives of the Chumash people, who once used large ocean-going canoes, or tomols, to fish for large ocean fish, trap marine mammals, and trade amongst the widespread villages along the mainland and Channel Islands. The Chumash people called the point Humqaq, meaning “The Raven Comes” and believed that the channel between Point Conception and San Miguel Island was the pathway through which souls of the dead transitioned from this world to the next. 

When Europeans began to settle on this coastline in the late 18th-century Mission Era, much of the surrounding land was turned to cattle ranchland and farmland. The region also has a long history of active and productive fisheries by Spanish, Russian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian settlers. With many mariners traveling along the California coast, a lighthouse was built on the point in 1856, and remains one of the oldest lighthouses along the West Coast. In 1913, the land around Point Conception was bought by the Bixby family who used the area for sheep and cattle herding for the next hundred years, protecting this piece of the California coast from development. 

However, in 2007, a Boston-based investment firm bought the property for $140 million with plans to develop the land. Over the next decade, due to illegal drilling, road construction, and habitat destruction, the plans for development were barred and, in 2017, the ranch was purchased by The Nature Conservancy to be set aside as a nature preserve. With the MPA at Point Conception, this unique meeting of land and sea will be preserved in its wild state for future generations to enjoy.

Recreation

at the base of a blue sky, golden clouds sit on rolling hills meeting a calm blue ocean, a red and white Coast Guard vessel floats offshore at Point Conception SMR
Looking towards Cojo Anchorage in Point Conception SMR. photo © R. Schwemmer/NOAA

Bounded by private ranches and Vandenberg Air Force Base, this MPA is quite challenging to access from land or sea. Its remoteness makes it one of the least-visited mainland MPAs along California’s south coast. While future development of the newly named Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve (a nature reserve) will change access to Point Conception SMR, at this time the SMR is only accessible by boat. 

Point Conception and Bixby Ranch are world-famous for their surf breaks, and scuba diving is possible at any of the protected reefs and coves. Due to protections afforded by the MPA and its location in a transitional zone between central and Southern California, it harbors some of the most abundant and diverse marine life in California. Point Conception SMR, though remote, is worth the effort to explore.

Coordinates

This area is bounded by the mean high tide line and straight lines connecting the following points in the order listed except where noted:

34° 27.000' N. lat. 120° 28.280' W. long.; 
34° 27.000' N. lat. 120° 32.151' W. long.; thence southeastward along the three nautical mile offshore boundary to
34° 23.961' N. lat. 120° 25.000' W. long.; and
34° 27.211' N. lat. 120° 25.000' W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(96)

Map

Map of Point Conception State Marine Reserve - link opens in new window

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet