An underwater view of the Naples Reef reveals a diverse ecosystem of sea stars, urchins, perch, and other marine life.
Brian Hall/Ocean Futures Society

Scuba divers looking to explore submarine depths off the Santa Barbara coastline will now have an easier time finding their way around. A local environmental group has created an interactive dive map of the Naples State Marine Conservation Area, a protected underwater park of the Santa Barbara Channel.

Sea life isn’t simply an enjoyable sight for sea divers; it is also an important field of research for marine biologists. As such, excessive fishing in areas rich with marine life can threaten the diversity and abundance of life in the aquatic. In 2013, the State of California designated the Naples Reef, then a popular fishing site, as one of 19 marine protected areas (MPA) in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, the group behind the map, created it by tracking underwater areas of the Naples site. According to Ben Pitterle, marine and watershed program director, the map points out the most “striking” areas of the reef. Divers can click on relevant portions of the map and watch videos informing them of the area’s importance. In addition, the group has made the map available over the Internet, so the community can learn about the Naples site from home.

The map’s primary purpose is to generate support from the community for developments like this one. “The challenge of marine conservation,” Pitterle said, “is that it’s all underwater, so 99 percent of people can’t see why it’s important.”

The layout of the online map is simple: One click on any portion of the charted site reveals a YouTube video about that particular location along the reef. For instance, clicking on the area designated as Snorkel Park opens a video taken by a diver underwater at that specific area. The first-person perspective of the video features shots of algae and various schools of fish in the blue, underscored by some serene music. A viewer sitting at home can thus experience one of the more biodiverse regions of the Santa Barbara Channel.

The maps handed out at scuba diving shops and visitor centers near the site are nearly identical to their online counterparts. The one technical difference between the two maps: In person, one must scan QR codes off the map and onto a smartphone in order to watch the corresponding videos.

“One of the concerns of those who oppose the MPA is that we’re closing off the ocean to people,” he said. “In fact, one of the main goals of the Marine Life Protection Act is explicitly to benefit people, as well as marine ecosystems. Naples is far offshore, so if you don’t know where to go, you have a hard time accessing it.”

The so-called opposition to the MPA is composed primarily of fishing groups, according to Pitterle. He said overfishing at the Naples site was one of the threats that led to its designation as an MPA. Since then, the state prohibits mass fishing in the reef, though it does allow for limited spear fishing of certain species of sea bass.

“Naples is seen as the crown jewel of our protected areas,” he said, stressing the need for the community to embrace advents like the map. “The more the community is invested in these places, the more support we will have for continued protection.”

In September, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper will offer discounted trips to the reserve to interested scuba divers. According to Pitterle, the group has received positive reception from the community for presenting the opportunity to travel to the reef. “Overwhelmingly,” he said, “people are excited to explore the area.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct previous inaccuracies attributed to Ben Pitterle.


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