Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

California State Waters Map Series: Offshore of Refugio Beach, California

March 18, 2015

In 2007, the California Ocean Protection Council initiated the California Seafloor Mapping Program (CSMP), designed to create a comprehensive seafloor map of high-resolution bathymetry, marine benthic habitats, and geology within California’s State Waters. The CSMP approach is to create highly detailed seafloor maps through collection, integration, interpretation, and visualization of swath sonar data, acoustic backscatter, seafloor video, seafloor photography, high-resolution seismic-reflection profiles, and bottom-sediment sampling data. The map products display seafloor morphology and character, identify potential marine benthic habitats, and illustrate both the surficial seafloor geology and shallow (to about 100 m) subsurface geology.

The Offshore of Refugio Beach map lies within the western Santa Barbara Channel region of the Southern California Bight. This geologically complex region forms a major biogeographic transition zone, separating the cold-temperate Oregonian province north of Point Conception from the warm-temperate California province to the south. The map area is in the southern part of the Western Transverse Ranges geologic province, which is north of the California Continental Borderland. Significant clockwise rotation—at least 90°—since the early Miocene has been proposed for the Western Transverse Ranges province, and geodetic studies indicate that the region is presently undergoing north-south shortening. Uplift rates (as much as 0.5 mm/yr) that are based on studies of onland marine terraces provide further evidence of significant shortening.

The coastal zone of this map area lies at the steep flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The crest of the range, which lies about 8 km from the shoreline (north of the map area), has a maximum elevation of about 780 m. This area is largely open space, partly used for livestock grazing, with no significant towns or population centers. Highway 101 crosses the map area, adjacent to and within a few hundred meters of the shoreline. The most significant developments are the recreational state beaches at El Capitan Beach and Refugio Beach. The beaches are subject to erosion each winter during storm-wave attack, and then they undergo gradual recovery or accretion during the more gentle wave climate of the late spring, summer, and fall months.

The Offshore of Refugio Beach map area lies in the west-central part of the Santa Barbara littoral cell, which is characterized by west-to-east transport of sediment from Point Arguello on the northwest to Hueneme and Mugu Canyons on the southeast. Longshore drift rates have been reported to range from about 160,000 to 800,000 tons/yr, averaging 400,000 tons/yr. Sediment supply to the western and central part of the littoral cell, including the map area, is mainly from relatively small coastal watersheds. Within the map area, these coastal watersheds include (from east to west) Cañada del Capitan, Tajiquas Creek, Arroyo Hondo, Cañada del Molino, and several unnamed canyons and creeks. The Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Rivers, the mouths of which are 80 to 120 km northwest of the map area, are not considered significant sediment sources because Point Conception and Point Arguello provide obstacles to downcoast sediment transport and also because much of their sediment load is trapped in dams. The Ventura and Santa Clara Rivers, the mouths of which are about 70 km to the southeast of the map area, are not sediment sources for the map area.

The offshore part of the map area consists of relatively flat and shallow continental shelf, which dips gently seaward (about 0.8° to 1.0°) so that water depths at the shelf break, roughly coincident with the California’s State Waters limit, are about 80 to 100 m. This part of the Santa Barbara Channel is relatively well protected from large Pacific swells from the north and northwest by Point Conception and from the south and southwest by offshore islands and banks. The shelf is underlain by variable amounts of upper Quaternary marine and fluvial sediments deposited as sea level fluctuated in the late Pleistocene.

In the map area, the shelf break is at depths of about 90 m and lies about 5.6 to 6.4 km offshore. Beyond the shelf break, the slope is steep (as much as about 7°) and unstable. Several submarine landslides, including the large (130 km2) Goleta landslide complex, have been documented offshore of Goleta, a few kilometers east of the map area. This compound slump complex may have been initiated more than 200,000 year ago, but it also includes three recent failures that may have been generated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. A local, 10-m-high tsunami may have been generated from these failure events.

Small folds related to local faulting are superimposed on the homocline that makes up the south flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains. One of these superimposed anticlines hosts the Molino gas field, which was discovered in 1962 and subsequently developed through directional drilling from onshore wells. The Oligocene Sespe and Vaqueros Formations are the reservoirs in the Molino gas field, and the map area includes numerous seafloor hydrocarbon seeps.

Seafloor habitats in the broad Santa Barbara Channel region consist of significant amounts of soft, unconsolidated sediment interspersed with isolated areas of rocky habitat that support kelp-forest communities nearshore and rocky-reef communities in deep water. The potential marine benthic habitat types mapped in the Offshore of Refugio Beach map area are directly related to its Quaternary geologic history, geomorphology, and active sedimentary processes. These potential habitats, which lie primarily within the Shelf (continental shelf) but also partly within the Flank (basin flank or continental slope) megahabitats, primarily are composed of soft sediment interrupted by a few carbonate mounds. This homogeneous seafloor of sediment and low-relief bedrock provides promising habitat for groundfish, crabs, shrimp, and other marine benthic organisms.

Publication Year 2015
Title California State Waters Map Series: Offshore of Refugio Beach, California
DOI 10.3133/sim3319
Authors Samuel Y. Johnson, Peter Dartnell, Guy R. Cochrane, Nadine E. Golden, Eleyne L. Phillips, Andrew C. Ritchie, Lisa M. Krigsman, Bryan E. Dieter, James E. Conrad, H. Gary Greene, Gordon G. Seitz, Charles A. Endris, Ray W. Sliter, Florence L. Wong, Mercedes D. Erdey, Carlos I. Gutierrez, Mary M. Yoklavich, Amy E. East, Patrick E. Hart
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Map
Series Number 3319
Index ID sim3319
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center