Americans love their national parks, and for good reason. Protecting over six million acres of land, the parks are places of refuge, relaxation, and connection to nature. It turns out there’s a similar system for our oceans and lakes.

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, an effort to protect and conserve vital marine environments in the United States. Since the signing of the act in 1972 the list of sanctuaries has grown to fifteen now protecting 620,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters.

Sanctuaries are created for a variety of purposes from the protection of a single Civil War shipwreck to the conservation of ocean surrounding coral reefs. Many are easily accessible and open to regular recreation activities like boating, fishing, and diving. Others are remote and rarely see visitors.

A handful of sanctuaries offer visitors centers to educate guests about the area’s wildlife, habitat, research, and recreational opportunities. Later this fall Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary will open the newest visitors center in Savannah, Georgia, coinciding nicely with the 50th anniversary.

Here are four of the sanctuaries that can be visited this fall and what to do when you get there.

Channel Islands

Combine Channel Islands National Park with its surrounding marine sanctuary, and you have a vast swath of land and water in Southern California just waiting to be explored. Come prepared to see plenty of marine life including dolphins, whales, Garibaldi, sea stars, sea anemones, harbor seals, and more.

Dolphins swimming in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary–photo provided with permission by NOAA

Fall is an especially good time to visit because you’re likely to see blue whales during their southern migration. As the largest whale on earth, these creatures can weigh up to 400 pounds and reach lengths of 98 feet. A number of tour operators provide whale watching cruises out of Ventura or Oxnard. 

Kayaking around the Channel Islands is the perfect way to combine your exploration of land and sea. Home to the largest concentration of sea caves in the world, the islands are full of opportunities to paddle near or through a cave. Float through a massive kelp forest that protects large schools of fish and watch playful harbor seals bobbing up and down. First timers should consider an organized kayaking tour with Channel Islands Adventure Company.

View of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary from the national park

Monterey Bay

If Monterey Bay had a mascot, it would be the sea otter. These marine mammals provide endless hours of entertainment to the visitors of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Central California. Often they can be seen in the giant kelp forest close to the water’s edge where they search for food. 

Among the largest protected ocean areas in the United States, the Monterey sanctuary is larger than Yellowstone National Park. This vast area is home to 36 species of marine mammals including sea otters, dolphins, porpoises, and blue whales. In addition there are 525 species of fish and 180 types of sea and shore birds.

A sea otter in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary–photo provided with permission by NOAA

With the summer season attracting large crowds to the Monterey Peninsula, fall is ideal for a quieter experience. And like Channel Islands, this is the perfect time to watch migrating blue whales.

A highlight of any visit to Monterey Bay sanctuary is a kayak ride through the kelp forest. Sea otters are often seen floating in rafts (groups of resting sea otters) and searching for food. The occasional harbor seal can be seen bobbing up and down as well. Rent a kayak for a self-guided experience or take an organized tour with Adventures By The Sea.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whales

Starting in November and continuing through April, thousands of humpback whales travel to the warm, shallow waters of Hawai to mate, give birth, and raise their young. In fact, half the population of the North Pacific humpback whales use these waters seasonally. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary protects these whales and their habitat.  While it is possible to view the whales from land, many visitors opt to join an organized whale watching tour to see them up close. 

Humpback whale in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback National Marine Sanctuary–photo provided with permission by NOAA

To learn more about these magnificent creatures–along with all the other marine life–check out the Visitor Center in Kīhei Maui. In front of the center is the native Hawaiian fishpond called Kōʻieʻie. The three-acre pond is one of the last remaining intact traditional fish ponds along the south Maui coastline.

Other activities in the sanctuary include snorkeling, diving, surfing, paddle boarding, and recreational fishing.

Florida Keys

The protected waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are home to the only living barrier reef in the continental United States. Starting in the north, just off the shore of Miami and continuing south around Dry Tortugas National Park, this sanctuary also encompasses expansive seagrass beds, mangrove-bordered islands, and more than 6,000 species of marine life.

Diving and snorkeling are two of the most popular activities in the sanctuary, both great ways to get up close to the barrier reef and explore all the marine life it protects. If you prefer to stay out of the water, several operators offer boat tours. Be sure to seek out one of the Blue Star Operators, companies dedicated to education and conservation.

Coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary–photo provided with permission by NOAA

Beyond marine life, Florida Keys sanctuary estimates it protects 1,000 shipwrecks. Among these are fourteen historic sites. Along Shipwreck Trail are the remains of nine ships scattered a few miles offshore. An underwater guide is available for each ship.

Fall is a nice time to visit Florida Keys as temperatures start to cool, the crowds dissipate, and prices are more affordable. However, it’s also in the midst of hurricane season, so come prepared for rain and possible cancellations of water activities.

Get Into Your Sanctuary

It’s easy to drive past, sail through, or even fly over a national marine sanctuary and not even realize it exists. Unlike our national parks with welcome signs and guarded entry points, sanctuaries often blend seamlessly into the waters and land around them. So while they may take a bit more effort to find, it’s worth it. Those waters are teeming with marine life and historic sites, all waiting to be explored. Be sure to check out the list of sanctuaries in the United States and see which ones you can visit in the near future.