So what is a National Marine Sanctuary?

The National Marine Sanctuary System represents areas of America’s ocean and Great Lakes environment that are of special national significance. The primary role of a marine sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way. Most have regulations that prohibit activities like oil drilling or ocean dumping. An oil spill off Santa Barbara, California was one of the catalyzing events for the modern environmental movement and our current fabric of environmental laws. Among those laws was the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, passed (under Title III of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act) in 1972. The Act was designed to protect our waters and cultural resources from oil and gas exploration, overuse, exploitation and denigration. Since that time the sanctuary system has come a long way. It has developed far beyond a tool to protect waters from destructive activities. It is has become a network of productive marine communities for recreation and sport as well as an evolving haven for wildlife. Learn more about National Marine Sanctuaries.

First Exploration of Cordell Bank in 1977

Cordell Expeditions (CE) is an organization founded in 1977 to explore Cordell Bank. Dr. Robert Schmieder founded the organization and recruited teams of skilled SCUBA divers to undertake the task of exploration. Much of the funding for the project was provided by the CE team members.

Schmieder’s first encounter with Cordell Bank was while studying a NOAA nautical chart. He was drawn to Cordell Bank’s shallow 20 fathom (120 feet) contour and realized that it was within the depth range of SCUBA divers. When he asked marine scientists at the California Academy of Sciences and U.C. Berkeley what the biological community was like at Cordell Bank, and none of them knew, he decided to find out for himself. CE made their first SCUBA dives at Cordell Bank on October 22, 1978 after more than a year of preparation. On that day Dr. Schmieder and his four person team were among the first individuals to actually see Cordell Bank. They were astounded by the texture, color and biological diversity of the reef crest. They immediately realized that Cordell Bank was a submarine jewel worthy of protection.

Video: Cordell Expeditions 1970s Newscast
NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

CE made subsequent annual diving expeditions to Cordell Bank through 1985. They took photographs and collected specimens which were sent to museums around the United States. The group wrote annual reports describing their discoveries and gave public lectures illustrating the beauty and diversity of Cordell Bank.

In 1982 CE petitioned the Sanctuary Program office of NOAA to consider Cordell Bank as a potential marine sanctuary. Robert Schmieder was invited to participate in Congressional hearings and advocated for the designation. Finally, in 1989 president George H. W. Bush signed legislation designating Cordell Bank as the nation’s 8th national marine sanctuary.

CE developed an impressive collection of biological specimens, photographic images and reports. Their species list contains 350 genera and 446 species. The group documented many range extensions and provided material which led to the description of species new to science. Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary collaborated with scientists and archivists at the California Academy of Sciences to curate this collection, thus making it perpetually available for future study.