High Flying, Adored: MPAs From Above

Ana Luisa Ahern, Heal the Bay’s Communications Manager, shares her experience flying in a Cessna 210 on an aerial tour of L.A.’s marine protected areas.

Marine Protected Area Garibaldi in Kelp ForestA few weeks ago I had the incredible opportunity to fly in a four-passenger, single engine airplane over L.A.’s beautiful coast. The flight was provided by LightHawk, a nonprofit whose mission is to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight. Mike Sutton, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, served as pilot on this eye-opening journey.

Mike and I were taking Los Angeles Times environmental reporter Tony Barboza and photographer Luis Cinco on an aerial tour of L.A.’s new marine protected areas, or MPAs. Our new MPAs are best viewed at either extreme — below the surface of the ocean or thousands of feet above it. Flying over the ocean on a sunny day provided an incredible view of the thriving kelp forests off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The view highlighted the beauty and important placement of our new underwater parks in a statewide network of protected places.

Staring down at the expanse of different hues of blue, accentuated by deep brown kelp beds off the Malibu coast near Point Dume, I recalled my recent scuba dives there, both within and just outside of the marine reserve. The contrast was startling. Diving outside of and then in the reserve was akin to stepping out of the desert and into a grove of giant sequoias, surrounded by life. After seeing only a few straggling fish on the first dive, I was awed by the dazzling display of color and variety of species I encountered inside the reserve. Brilliant orange garibaldi darted across my path, a startled swell shark shot off into the deep. Tiny Spanish Shawl nudibranch, those flamboyantly costumed stars of the ocean, swayed in the surge as rockfish stopped to side-eye me in the vast underwater kelp forest. It was like night and day, and the importance of protecting this special place, allowing it to rest and recover in order to thrive, was so beautifully illustrated for me in that moment.

I shared my love for these spots with Tony and Luis on that flight. Mike and I recounted our personal stories about MPAs and the process that brought them to Southern California. We also highlighted the findings of Heal the Bay’s citizen-scientist monitoring program, MPA Watch. The report shows that things haven’t changed all that much for the lives of the fishing community. Life below the surface is on the road to recovery, given a special opportunity to thrive.

Read Tony Barboza’s article about marine sanctuaries in the Los Angeles Times.

Kelp Forests in the ocean in marine protected areas off the Palos Verdes coast