Seamounts & Banks


A bank is an elevation of the seafloor located on the continental shelf, over which the water depth is relatively shallow. These features are of continental origin and can cover extensive surface area but do not extend thousands of meters into the water column.

By contrast, seamounts are mainly volcanic in origin, rise a considerable height from great depths on the continental rise and are limited in length across the summit.

Despite their differences in scale, both banks and seamounts are isolated in space and have higher elevation and a different substrate than the surrounding seabed. The vertical structure, habitat complexity and rocky substrate of banks and seamounts support a very different biological assemblage than the surrounding soft bottom typical of the continental shelf and slope. Because these rocky features extend up into the water column, they provide ideal habitat for attached sessile invertebrates that depend on currents to deliver their food. The hard substrate is also favorable for settlement of larvae from the water column.

Cordell Bank is the centerpiece of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary and is located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of San Francisco and 32 kilometers west of the Point Reyes lighthouse. It is approximately 7 kilometers wide and 15 kilometers long and sits on the edge of the continental shelf. Shelf depths at its base are about 91 meters (300 feet), with upper pinnacles reaching to within 35 meters of the ocean surface. The bank makes up approximately 2 percent of the total sanctuary area.

Cordell Bank was created as part of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range nearly 100 million years ago. About 30 million years ago, the north-moving Pacific plate sheared off a block of the North American plate containing Cordell Bank, and since that time, the bank has been migrating slowly north. Its granite structure is a link to its geologic history as well as an indication of its common origin with the Farallon Islands to the south.

Recent discoveries of sedimentary rock on Cordell Bank have intrigued geologists and suggest that the bank may be more geologically complex than previously thought. Between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, when sea level was about 110 meters lower than it is today, Cordell Bank would have been entirely exposed. Boulder fields at its base on the western side may be indicative of an ancient shoreline.

A percentage of Cordell Bank is made up of consolidated granite reef, but much of the bank is a heterogeneous mixture of rock reef, boulders, cobbles, sand and mud. Its perimeter includes large expanses of white sand waves on the eastern side and relatively flat mud on the northern and western sides. The central portion has extensive reef systems and the shallowest pinnacles (as shallow as 35 meters), while the northern half is deeper, with mixed bolder and reef habitats. Throughout the bank, rocky reefs are cut by sand channels as well as mixed habitats of sand, boulders and cobbles.

The bathymetry and location of Cordell Bank combine to make it a very productive marine environment. The bank is situated downstream from a major and persistent upwelling center at Point Arena to the north. Nutrients and productivity emanating from that area are carried over the bank and sustain a thriving biological community. In addition to the Point Arena upwelling center, localized upwelling may also contribute to productivity at Cordell Bank.

The bank is located on the edge of an underwater peninsula and is surrounded by deep water on three sides. Within 11 kilometers of its western edge, the seafloor drops to 1,829 meters at the sanctuary’s western boundary. Data suggest that, as deeper water encounters the base of the bank on the northern edge, the water mass moves up and over the bank. This localized upwelling would be one more mechanism delivering food and nutrients to organisms living on or around Cordell Bank.

Sponges, hydrocorals, tunicates, anemones, gorgonians, solitary corals and hydroids compete for space on the upper-reef areas. More mobile animals like decorator crabs, sea stars, sea cucumbers, snails and demersal fishes move over the invertebrate carpet. Cover on the upper reef areas exceeds 100 percent, as animals are layered one on top of the other.

This living reef also provides critical habitat for first-year juvenile rockfishes (Sebastes spp.) that settle out of the water column as they transition from a pelagic to benthic life stage. Adult rockfishes, lingcod and other benthic fishes also inhabit the complex habitats within the structure of Cordell Bank. The most conspicuous invertebrates occurring in the deeper reef areas include octopus, crinoids, white plumed anemones, sea stars and tube polychaetes.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are perhaps the most serious threats confronting all species of wildlife today. Many of the activities and conditions that indirectly affect marine life are first experienced as an alteration or disturbance to their habitat.

Activities that currently have the greatest potential impact on Cordell Bank are the use of bottom-tending fishing gears, the deposition of lost fishing gear and other marine debris, the introduction of invasive species, and the construction and placement of cables and pipelines on the bank.

Gear restrictions and area closures associated with the Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) and Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) designations have reduced potential habitat impacts from fishing. Regulations protecting the bank from invasive species introductions and seabed disturbance form part of the sanctuary’s revised management plan.


Benthic Community Characterization and Monitoring
The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Laboratory in Santa Cruz, the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), California Academy of Sciences and the California Department of Fish and Game, conducted a study to classify habitats and monitor fishes and macro-invertebrates on and around Cordell Bank. Benthic transects were monitored annually from 2002 to 2005. The sanctuary plans to continue the monitoring program in the future; however, this is dependent upon funding levels.

Underwater surveys of fishes, invertebrates and their habitats were conducted on and around Cordell Bank using direct observation and video-transect methods from an occupied research submersible (Delta). Transects were distributed over the bank to sample all bank habitats and associated biota.

The data provided the sanctuary staff with a species inventory of fishes and benthic invertebrates. Long-term data may be used to identify habitat affinities for species complexes, develop habitat suitability models and provide a foundation to evaluate change over time.

Photo Library

Below is a sampling of related images found in the SIMoN Photo Library. Click or tap on an image for more details.

Map Repository

California Seamounts

California Seamounts

This map shows all known seamounts that occur in federal waters off the California coast.
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Project Database


Cordell Bank Habitat Characterization and Biological Monitoring

In 2002, sanctuary staff and collaborators initiated a program to quantify the diversity, distribution and abundance of habitats, fishes and invertebrates on and around Cordell Bank and follow these parameters over time. Underwater surveys of macrofauna (fish and invertebrates) and habitats are conducted using direct observation and video transects from an occupied submersible (Delta).


Re-Discovering Cordell Bank: Dive Expedition 30 Years Later

In 2010, a technical dive team completed a series of deep dives on Cordell Bank; this was the first dive expedition to Cordell Bank since Cordell Expedition divers explored the Bank between 1977 and 1985. The team was able to accomplish all the mission’s science objectives including photo and video documentation and sample collection of invertebrates. This information will allow sanctuary staff to evaluate changes that have occurred on the bank since the original survey 30 years ago, and establish species composition and reef conditions in 2010. The 2010 data will allow sanctuary staff to analyze future changes that may be associated with changing climate conditions.


Seafloor Mapping in Monterey Bay, Cordell Bank, and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey scientists mapped and characterized seafloor areas on the continental shelf in three west coast National Marine Sanctuaries using side-scan sonar and underwater video technology.