Visiting the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Located mere steps away from the Santa Cruz Ocean and the Santa Cruz Wharf, you’ll find the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). 

The Exploration Center isn’t just the perfect place to spend a few hours on a rainy day in Santa Cruz, California. It also offers visitors a chance to dive deep below the surface of our beloved Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary- without even getting wet! If you love the ocean and are interested in learning more about it, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Exploration Center. 

After you book your lovely beach rental in Santa Cruz, get ready to explore everything the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has to offer.

About the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

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Designated as a protected ecosystem by NOAA in 1992, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the world. It spans all the way from Cambria up to the northern edge of San Francisco. The sanctuary has incredible biodiversity and is sometimes called the “Serengeti of the sea.” It protects resident and transient species, including humpback whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and seabirds. 

The marine sanctuary is incredibly important, and when we enjoy the beautiful beaches and watch all of the marine life in Santa Cruz, we’re simultaneously interacting hands-on with this sanctuary.

The MBNMS Exploration Center

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  • Address: 35 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Website:
  • Hours: Open year-round, Wednesday to Sunday, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
  • Admission: Free

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is the educational arm of the sanctuary. It was created with a singular purpose: to help visitors understand, connect with, appreciate, respect, and support the sanctuary. 

Visitors within the Exploration Center can engage hands-on with the marine sanctuary without stepping into the ocean.

Through a series of educational and interactive exhibits, the Exploration Center transports you beneath the surface of Monterey Bay. Here are some of the incredible exhibits featured.

Can’t Miss Exhibits

Sanctuary Introduction Deck

As you arrive at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, you’ll be greeted by the Sanctuary Observation Deck. From an elevated vantage point, this exhibit allows you to gaze over an incredible view of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

On the introduction deck, you can also look at historic photos of the area, including images from its busy days as a fishing port. The Introduction Deck also has photos of what the marine sanctuary might look like today if not for its protected status, giving insight into its positive impact. 

Where Does Your Water Go?

This exhibit hosts true-to-size replicas of classic cars perched above a storm drain and details exactly how oils and other pollutants wash down into storm drains and then to the ocean. 

The exhibit is interactive- kids can climb inside the storm drain replica, and all visitors can learn how to combat watershed pollution. 

Exploration Theater

In the mood for a movie? The exploration theater plays one of Bob Talbot’s incredible short documentaries, “One Breath.” One Breath takes viewers deep into the marine sanctuary itself and tells the story of the history of the Monterey Bay National Sanctuary and its various habitats over the last 4 million years. 

Intertidal Touchpool

If you’re a hands-on learner, you’ll love the intertidal touch pools. This recreation of a Rocky Tide Pool you might find here on the central coast includes models of several intertidal animals, along with a small touch tank and interactive videos. 

Kelp Forest

The Exploration Center also houses an impressive recreation of a lush, top-to-bottom kelp forest. The kelp forest exhibit details several different types of marine animals you’d find in the kelp forest and has interactive displays which teach visitors all about the different types of animals featured in this marine environment. 

Submarine Canyon

The Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary features one of the largest submarine canyons off the coast of the United States. In fact, it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon! Within this exhibit, visitors can operate a remote control robot that reveals animals and other underwater treasures on the canyon floor. The exhibit also details the fishing history of the area and sustainable fishing practices and compares historical fishing practices to the ones of today. 

Open Ocean Mini Theater

The Open Ocean Mini-Theater shows beautiful underwater footage of unique animals in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, including dolphins, sunfish, and whales. It offers a mesmerizing glimpse into life beneath the surface of Monterey Bay. 

Gift shop

Museum gift shops always have the best souvenirs, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is no exception. At the end of your visit, you can hit the gift shop and take home some fun, marine-themed souvenirs. All while supporting the sanctuary. 

Educational Opportunities and Events

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center isn’t just a museum for you to explore on your own but also an educational hub offering a variety of expert-led community events. 

Some of the events hosted by the Exploration Center include the “Get into your Sanctuary” fun summer event, coastal cleanup days, and more. For the specific events coming up during your trip to Santa Cruz, you can look at the Exploration Center events page to see what fun events might be coming up during your trip to Santa Cruz. Here are some popular events and classes held at the Exploration Center.

Get Into Your Sanctuary

The “Get Into Your Sanctuary” event is a fun, annual summer celebration. It typically takes place at the end of July and includes opportunities to fish, surf, participate in virtual shipwreck dives, and more. 

First Friday Monthly Art Event

On the first Friday of every month, Santa Cruz hosts First Friday, a celebration of art and culture across the city. In line with the festivities, the Exploration Center hosts an art event. The theme varies monthly but includes fun activities like an ocean-inspired dance and learning activities like “mermaid scientists” and plankton viewing. 

Planning Your Trip

You’ll likely want to spend 1-2 hours at the sanctuary to give yourself time to explore all the exhibits and see everything this incredible center offers. 

After visiting the Monterey Bay Exploration Center, watch for the local wildlife you just learned about around your vacation home and the neighboring beaches. From Santa Cruz, you might spot plenty of frolicking sea otters, and Aptos offers excellent viewing points for whale watching! 

Explore the Depths of Monterey Bay

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center offers a fun and affordable thing to do in Santa Cruz and promotes a greater understanding and respect for our marine ecosystems. 

If you’re ready to learn about the surrounding marine life in addition to soaking up the sun and enjoying the surrounding Santa Cruz beaches, book your vacation rental, grab your sunscreen, and get ready to go! The Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary awaits you.