Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures
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Guide to America's National Marine Sanctuaries

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Voyage to Kure
Sharks at Risk
The Gray Whale Obstacle Course

Return to the Amazon
Sea Ghosts: Belugas
Call of the Killer Whale

Elephant Seal

Featured Creature
Elephant Seal

The elephant seal is the world's largest seal. A mature male can be 16 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. A distinctive-looking creature, the male elephant seal has a large and odd-shaped proboscis (nose-like appendage) that has been likened to that of its namesake. The proboscis is used to produce very loud roars, especially during the animals' combative mating season. The female is much smaller and has no proboscis, making the elephant seal the most sexually dimorphic of all mammals. Elephant seals feed on fish, squid, octopus and other sea creatures, and they are outstanding swimmers, able to dive as much as a mile deep. Although they spend the great majority of their lives at sea, they do come to shore to breed, birth and molt (shed their fur). Extensively hunted in the 19th century, elephant seals were once thought to be extinct, but the population has recovered in select areas such as the Farallon Islands. Learn more about this creature at the Encyclopedia of the Sanctuary (at

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

Official Web Site (at
Sanctuary Map (at

The Gulf of the Farallones was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in January 1981. In one of his final acts as president, Jimmy Carter signed the bill the day before he left office.

What's Underwater
Located directly off the coast of Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the land and the surrounding waters of the Farallon Islands, a group of small islands and rocks scattered along a five-mile stretch which have a total area of about one-quarter square mile. Due to its location just next to the point where the continental shelf drops off into the deep ocean, the sanctuary is in an upwelling zone, a nutrient-rich environment teeming with life. The sanctuary waters and islands serve as a nursery for harbor seals, elephant seals, harbor porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins, rockfish and seabirds. Twenty percent of California's harbor seals breed in the sanctuary. More than 400,000 seabirds breed in the sanctuary, making it the largest breeding concentration of seabirds in the contiguous United States. The sanctuary is a favorite with large marine animals, including one of the largest remaining blue whale populations in the world and one of the world's largest concentrations of great white sharks.


Visitor Center
Located in on the waterfront in San Francisco's Presidio, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center offers opportunities to encounter the fascinating creatures in the aquarium, discover exciting adventures in sanctuary waters and learn how to get involved in protecting the local marine environment. The visitor center is a great place for young people. More information is available at

Things to Do
The Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association offers suggestions on many ways to explore the sanctuary. Activities include bird-watching, boating, kayaking, tidepooling and whale watching. Details can be found at The sanctuary's paddler's etiquette" and "walker's etiquette" guidelines offer practical suggestions on how you can avoid disturbing sensitive wildlife and habitat while enjoying your natural surroundings.


Research Projects

  • Sanctuary Ecosystem Assessment Surveys (SEAS) is a compilation of Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary monitoring programs that provides the biological observations and habitat characterization for the Gulf of the Farallones region.
  • Staffed primarily by volunteers, the sanctuary's Beach Watch coastal monitoring program provides important data on the state of the sanctuary's ecosystem. It documents the distribution, relative abundance and seasonal changes of the natural resources (wildlife and habitats) of the sanctuary. It also provides early detection of oil spills, wildlife mortality incidents and other information needed for effective sanctuary management.

Challenges Facing the Sanctuary

  • The impact of vessels on the sanctuary includes oil spills and discharge of oily waste from bilge pumping, ballast water discharge, habitat destruction from vessel groundings, and anchoring in sensitive habitat such as eelgrass beds. Thousands of large-class vessels traverse the sanctuary through the Golden Gate each year.
  • Introduction of invasive species can displace native species and alter habitats and entire ecosystems over time. Intensive international shipping promotes cross-contamination when ballast water is discharged or vessels carry loads of non-native barnacles and other organisms.
  • The Gulf of the Farallones is the most "urban" marine sanctuary in the country, with more than 7 million humans sharing habitats in close proximity with wildlife, through commercial and recreational activities and everyday life. People and their pets can significantly impact wildlife and encroach on wild habitats.
  • Water quality is a large concern, with both point-source and nonpoint-source contamination from runoff generated by urban sources and agriculture. This may be linked to harmful algal blooms, which can be lethal to marine mammals and other ocean life throughout the food web.

Success Stories

  • Helped detect the source of and remove 100,000 gallons of polluting oil from a 50-year-old shipwreck
  • Prevented oil drilling along the San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin and southern Sonoma coasts
  • Prohibits the discharge of materials into the sanctuary
  • Encouraged breeding of northern fur seals on the Farallon Islands after more than 170 years
  • Restoring the common murre bird population to breeding areas affected by oil spills
  • Reduced disturbance to harbor seals, which has led to the increased survival rate of pups