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Maritime Heritage: Overview

uss macon picture
USS Macon Airship, 1933-1935 (Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center/National Archives)

The history of California's central coast is predominantly a maritime one. From the days of the early Ohlone inhabitants to the exploration and settlement of California to the present, coastal waterways remain a main route of travel, subsistence, and supply. Ocean-based commerce and industries (e.g., fisheries, shipping, military, recreation, tourism, extractive industries, exploration, research, and aesthetics) are important to the maritime history, the modern economy, and the social character of this region. These constantly changing human uses define the maritime heritage of the central coast Sanctuaries and help interpret our evolving relationship with the Sanctuary resources. Ports such as San Francisco and Monterey, and smaller coastal harbor towns, developed through fishing, shipping, and economic exchange. Today these have become major urban areas, bringing millions of people in proximity to National Marine Sanctuaries. Many of these people are connected to the Sanctuaries through commercial and recreational activities such as surfing, boating, and diving.

The term "Maritime Heritage" means shipwrecks and other sites or objects that are of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance found in, on or under the seabed, and which have been underwater for at least 50 years. Included within are "archaeological resources" (physical remains of past human activities), "cultural heritage resources" (native and indigenous groups and traditional practices), and "historical resources" (existing, still standing objects of historical interest).

Records indicate that 463 vessel and aircraft losses occurred within the jurisdiction, or adjacent to the boundaries, of the MBNMS (Smith and Hunter 2003). These shipwrecks were a result of the significant maritime exploration and commerce which historically occurred in the region, coupled with a coastline dotted with shallow, rocky headlands, largely exposed to prevailing winds, storms, and fog.

The sea floor preserves remnants of the sites where people lived and of the vessels in which they conducted trade and fought wars. Ships, boats, wharves, lighthouses, lifesaving stations, whaling stations, prehistoric sites, and a myriad other heritage treasures lie covered by water, sand, and time.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes the protection and management of Sanctuary cultural and historical resources (i.e., submerged archaeological sites). Sanctuary stewardship responsibilities include a mandate to inventory sites, encourage research, provide public education, and oversee responsible visitor use.

Sanctuary staff has collaborated with state and federal agencies, and the private sector to gather resource documentation and to create opportunities to locate and record submerged archaeological resources. In 2001, MBNMS commissioned a submerged cultural resources study from established shipwreck databases, and review of primary and secondary source documentation. This study provides foundational information and an inventory of 463 reported vessel losses that occurred in or near the Sanctuary. Only a few marine archaeological investigations have been conducted within MBNMS, but such research reveals valuable information about these historical wreck sites and their final hours.


Maritime Heritage Action Plan (see Section VIII: Cross-Cutting)

National Marine Sanctuaries/West Coast Region: Maritime Heritage

National Marine Sanctuaries: Maritime Heritage Program

Reviewed: September 08, 2023
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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