Beach season is here. It’s time to frolic in the surf or lie in the sand, contemplating the vast ocean. But as you enjoy your time in the sun, take a moment to appreciate the wildlife that’s still swimming or scampering past you thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
It’s easy to get discouraged by environmental news these days. Our oil addiction is fueling a climate crisis and killing our coral reefs. Plastic pollution is accumulating in our oceans. And the biggest mass extinction in human history is underway — being actively worsened by the Trump administration’s reckless policies.
Yet, hope remains alive under the sea, where marine species have fared far better than their terrestrial counterparts. A recent study found that 77 percent of once-imperiled marine mammals and sea turtles protected by the Endangered Species Act are recovering.
Of the 31 populations studied, just two species declined after being protected under this landmark law: Hawaiian monk seals and Southern Resident killer whales. Not only were all sea turtle species recovering, but their median population increased a whopping 980 percent, reversing the path to extinction that many species were on.
Our oceans are still struggling to recover from decades of destructive fishing practices and industrial pollution. And we have yet to really grapple with the ocean warming and acidification driven by burning fossil fuels.
But as we visit our beautiful beaches, let’s feel hope and gratitude for the natural bounty surrounding us — and pledge to protect it.
Here are five endangered animals you may spot on a visit to the coast.
The world offers few more adorable sights than a sea otter’s furry face popping out of the ocean. Maybe you’ll even see it float onto its back and crack a clam open on its belly with a rock.
California sea otters were almost wiped out by coastal development, pollution and oil spills, but conservation efforts helped the population off California’s coast rebound to around 3,000 — well below their historic numbers, but still an exciting improvement. Sea otters are particularly vulnerable to oil pollution, so they’re threatened by current proposals to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and restart ExxonMobil’s dormant offshore platforms.
As you walk along the water’s edge, you’ll probably see shorebirds skittering in and out with the tide, snacking on crustaceans, insects and worms. Some of the smallest and cutest are the snowy plovers, which generally have a white chest and face and a brown and grey cloak of feathers. But they’ve been disappearing from beaches on the West Coast and in the Caribbean as humans and their pets trample their fragile eggs. Active conservation measures are helping; please look out for plover warning signs and keep your dog on a leash if you see any.
Endangered sea turtles’ recovery has been an amazing Endangered Species Act success story, but it’s still being written. The act has protected nesting beaches from development and lighting that disorients baby turtles. It’s also required most shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico to include turtle excluder devices to prevent these ancient creatures from being caught and killed in the nets.
But threats remain. Ocean plastic pollution chokes turtles and interferes with their reproduction. Industrial fishing practices like longline fishing decimated Pacific leatherbacks and other endangered turtles. Longline fishing was banned off California’s coast, but the Trump administration and fishing industry are now trying to reintroduce and expand it — so appreciate sea turtles and support a happy ending to their success story.
Hawaiian monk seals are among the world’s most endangered marine mammals, hovering perilously close to extinction with less than 1,000 remaining. They’re native to all the Hawaiian islands, but they’ve been harmed by predation, a lack of food and habitat loss. Climate change and sea-level rise are looming threats that lend urgency to efforts to stabilize the monk seal population now.
Federal and state conservation agencies have taken steps to protect their habitat and reintroduce them to the main Hawaiian islands they’ve disappeared from. If you see one on a visit to Hawaii, please keep your distance.
These are the whales you see breaching and jumping in fantastic displays. After humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction, the Endangered Species Act helped pull them back from the brink and put them on the road to recovery. To protect these amazing animals from deadly entanglements, commercial fishing gear has recently been better regulated along the California coast. For example, the commercial California Dungeness crab season ended early to avoid harming whales during their spring migration.
Whales are the largest animals on Earth, and it’s humbling to watch them swim along our coast. Once seen only as food or fuel, they’re a powerful testament to the enduring possibilities of conservation. If you spot one this summer, enjoy — and let the memory inspire you to protect our oceans.
Miyoko Sakashita is the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.