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Natural Environment: Biological Resources

Marine Mammals

Twenty-six species of marine mammals (whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions) are known to frequent the waters around Cordell Bank. The Sanctuary is one of the most important feeding grounds in the world for the endangered blue and humpback whales. These whales travel from their breeding areas in Mexico and Central America to feed on the abundant krill and schooling fish that aggregate near the bank. In late summer, breaching humpbacks are frequently seen around the bank. Pacific white-sided dolphins are attracted by plentiful food resources and can be seen in large numbers. California sea lions, elephant seals, northern fur seals, and Steller sea lions frequent Sanctuary waters to feed on krill, squid, and juvenile fishes.

Blue Whale image Humpback Whale image Pacific dolphin
These highly migratory species are regular visitors along the coast of California in the summer and fall. Baleen whales congregate along the continental shelf break where krill are most abundant. (Photos: Don Shapiro; Tom Kieckhefer) Pacific white-sided dolphin pods are frequently seen in large pods in the sanctuary. (Photo: NOAA)


Cordell Bank's food rich waters make it a major foraging locality for thousands of seabirds. This includes resident species that nest on the nearby Farallon Islands as well as highly migratory and vagabond pelagic birds.

The sanctuary is known as the "albatross capital of the northern hemisphere," as five of the fourteen albatross species have been documented in the Sanctuary. Watch a Black-footed Albatross movie clip.

Blackfoot bird image Stallcup Short-tailed albatross photo Shearwaters photo
Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) are the most common albatross to visit the sanctuary. Recent studies have shown nesting Albatross on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands making up to three round trips to the waters of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary to feed on squid and juvenile rockfish in one season. (Photo: Rich Stallcup) Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) are extremely rare; the species was thought to be extinct after World War II. Currently the world population is estimated to be around 1000 birds. (Photo: Rich Stallcup) Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) are the most abundant seabird seen off the coast of California during late summer and fall. (Photo: Rich Stallcup)

The Bank

The granite towers and reef areas between 120 ft (36 m) and 165 ft (50m) are a brilliant cascade of colors. Space is limiting at these depths as sponges, ascidians, anemones, hydrocorals, and sea stars carpet the hard substrates, often one on top of the other. Many of the bottom dwelling organisms that live on Cordell Bank started life riding the currents of the Pacific Ocean as free floating larvae. The upper reef areas are proof of successful settlement on the bank. The same currents that delivered these organisms to the bank also provide them with food. Species density is highest on the bank, at depths shallower than 50 meters.

Anemone photo Crab photo Sponge photo
Strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica) are plentiful where plankton-rich currents prevail. (Photo: Cordell Expeditions)
The decorator crab (Loxorhynchus crispatus) uses anemones and pieces of sponges to camouflage its exoskeleton. (Photo: Cordell Expeditions)
Sponges filter feed for plankton. (Photo: Cordell Expeditions)

Shallow pinnacles photo Urticina Anemone photo
The shallower pinnacles of the bank are dense with colorful invertebrate life. (Photo: Kip Evans)
The fish-eating anemone (Urticina piscivora) feeds on fish and invertebrates. (Photo: Kip Evans)

Cordell Bank is a Sanctuary. It's brimful of life.
The fish are never cranky. The place is very swanky.
--Jimmy Gilardi, West Marin School

The habitats in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary support an abundance of fishes. Flatfish such as sanddabs live on the mud and sandy bottom of the Sanctuary. Solitary bottomfish and schooling fish find refuge among the Bank's granite rocks and pinnacles. The area around Cordell Bank supports more than 246 species of fish, including 44 species of rockfish, ranging in size from the 8-inch pygmy rockfish to the 3-foot yellow-eye rockfish.

Even though Cordell Bank is offshore and it is usually quite a rough experience to get there, sport-fishing boats regularly venture out to the bank from Bodega Harbor to catch albacore and salmon.

male Lingcod photo Juvenile and adult fish photo yellowtail rockfish photo
Male Lingcod (Ophiodon elongaus) guard fertilized eggs nestled in rocky outcrops. (Photo: Lovell and Libby Langstroth)
Juvenile and adult fish are abundant around the colorful pinnacles. (Photo: Cordell Expeditions)
Yellowtail rockfish (Sebastes flavidus) often are prey to marine mammals and seabirds. (Photo: Cordell Expeditions)


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