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6 National Marine Sanctuaries That Should Be on Your Travel List

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6 National Marine Sanctuaries That Should Be on Your Travel List

These “underwater parks” contain everything from shipwrecks to coral reefs

Spanning from the Great Lakes to American Samoa, the federally protected U.S. national marine sanctuaries are home to coral reefs, endangered sea creatures, and even shipwrecks. From Hawaii’s humpback whales to the sea otters of California’s Monterey Bay, the 13 natural sanctuaries teem with sea life, making them ideal for activities like snorkeling, whale watching, and kayaking. Much as with our national parks, protecting these iconic “underwater parks” preserves more than just their beauty; they fall under the mandate of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Part of our mandate is to make them accessible to people, to the public, and [to] protect these places for future generations as well,” says Chiara Zuccarino-Crowe, the tourism and recreation coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Following an executive order from the President in April, several sanctuaries are in danger of being downsized to allow for oil and gas drilling. Plan your next vacation around one of these six sanctuaries to explore and support these American treasures and help protect the marine life that calls them home.

By Katie Watkins
Courtesy of NOAA
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    1. Thunder Bay

    Alpena, Michigan
    Go for: the shipwrecks and maritime history

    Fickle weather, strong winds, and fog banks—there are reasons this area of Lake Huron was once known as “Shipwreck Alley.” Today, nearly 100 shipwrecks have been discovered in the 4,300-square-mile Thunder Bay marine sanctuary, with vessels ranging from an 1844 sidewheel steamer to a modern, 500-foot-long German freighter. The lake’s cold, fresh water helps protect the vessels, making it one of the best-preserved collections of shipwrecks in the country. Divers, kayakers, and snorkelers can all get clear views of some of the wreckage. Don’t want to get wet? Try a glass-bottom boat tour with the NOAA-recommended Alpena Shipwreck Tours instead.

    Courtesy of NOAA
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    2. Monterey Bay
    Monterey, California
    Go for: the tide pools and wildlife

    Called the “Serengeti of the Sea,” Monterey Bay stretches 276 miles along the coast of California, and is bustling with wildlife from sea urchins to sea otters, and from dolphins to whales. While harbor seals and California sea lions are visible from the shore year round, adventure seekers can kayak in the kelp forests or the Elkhorn Slough wetlands for a chance to spot sea otters, crabs, and jellyfish. During low tide, visitors can explore the numerous tide pools, home to starfish, anemones, and sea slugs. Dying to see a specific animal? Consult the sanctuary’s wildlife viewing calendar to plan your trip accordingly.
    Courtesy of NOAA
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    3. Stellwagen Bank

    Between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, Massachusetts
    Go for: the whale and bird watching

    If you’ve ever gone whale watching in New England, chances are you were in the Stellwagen Bank marine sanctuary, an 842-square-mile area at the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay. Several species of whales swim through the waters, including finbacks, minkes, pilot whales, and the severely endangered North Atlantic right whale (unfortunately, fewer than 400 remain). Summer is the perfect time to see humpback whales, which return every year to feed on sand eels and teach their calves to hunt—if you’re lucky, you’ll spot one breaching. For those who prefer winged creatures, the area is also a birding hot spot with over 40 species of seabirds regularly stopping to dine on bay’s fish and plankton.

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    4. Florida Keys

    Florida Keys, Florida 

    Go for: the diving

    Protecting 2,900 square nautical miles, the Florida Keys sanctuary contains the world’s third-largest barrier reef, expansive seagrass beds, mangroves, and over 6,000 different species of marine life. The varied landscape makes it an ideal spot for just about every type of aquatic activity, including snorkeling, diving, boating, kayaking, and fishing. For those who can dive, don’t miss “shipwreck trail,” a series of nine ships submerged along the coral reefs. To book activities, check out NOAA’s list of Blue Star tour operators, all which have been vetted for promoting sustainable practices that help conserve the area’s coral reefs.

    Courtesy of NOAA
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    5. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale

    Kihei, Hawaii
    Go for: whale watching and surfing

    The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale marine sanctuary gets its name from the whale it was created to protect. Every winter, North Pacific humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska to breed in Hawaii’s warm waters. The whales can be seen from both land and sea, and if you happen to visit during peak season, you can volunteer to help count the whales that have returned for breeding. (Bonus points for spotting moms and calves swimming together!) The winter months draw flocks of a not-so-rare breed: the professional surfers who come for the iconic “Pipeline” break at Oahu’s North Shore. Stay to watch the Pipe Masters competition in December, when some of the world’s best surfers tackle one of the most deadly surf spots.

    Courtesy of NOAA
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    6. American Samoa

    American Samoa

    Go for: the coral reefs, diving, and snorkeling

    It may be the most far-flung of the marine sanctuaries, but American Samoa is worth the trip. With extensive coral reefs and waters around 82 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a paradise for divers and snorkelers. The sanctuary is also home to some of the largest corals in the world, including Big Momma, a coral of the Porites genus that is over 500 years old, measures 135 feet around, and stretches 21 feet high. Boat tours, hikes, and stand-up paddle boarding are also great ways to experience the reefs and marine life around American Samoa. Pro tip: It’s easiest to get here from Hawaii, so why not fly over after visiting the Humpback Whale sanctuary?

    Courtesy of NOAA
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