The California Department of Parks and Recreation (California State Parks) began to acknowledge special underwater areas in the early 1960’s when the nearshore area off Point Lobos, down coast of Monterey Bay, was added to the State Park System. In 1979, California State Parks published its Underwater Parks Master Plan which set forth a program to identify and acquire marine and non-marine underwater areas as additions to the State Park System. The vision of the plan was to expand the well-established system of terrestrial state parks and recreation areas to beyond the shoreline to more fully meet the mission to protect outstanding and representative examples of the broad range of California’s rich natural and cultural resource heritage for the enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations.

Several special underwater areas were added to the State Park System from 1980 to 2000 through long-term leases from the California State Lands Commission. Most of the locations are marine areas offshore of coastal State Park System units and a few are at inland areas, such as Emerald Bay State Park and Lake Perris State Recreation Area. Prior to 2000, the 14 marine lease areas were often referred to as “underwater parks”. However, they are not formal stand-alone park units. They are considered underwater areas within or adjacent to units of the State Park System units recognized as special areas that provide for visitor recreation, education and inspiration.

In 1997, the Resources Agency released California's Ocean Resources: An Agenda for the Future, which included a finding that the classifications/designations for special marine managed areas used by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), California State Parks, and other state agencies were confusing to the public as well as to managing agencies with regard to understating the purpose of the area and any restrictions on use. Shortly thereafter, two major companion acts were enacted in California that together established a framework for a statewide system of specially recognized marine managed areas in state waters. The Marine Managed Area Improvement Act (Improvement Act) established a uniform classification system for all state marine managed areas. California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) called for reexamination and redesign of California's system of marine protected areas, including those underwater areas covered by marine leases adjacent to coastal State Park Units. The MLPA required the Fish and Game Commission to adopt a master plan to guide and implement this new comprehensive network of marine protected areas. Implementation of the MLPA, led by the CDFW and the Fish and Game Commission from 2004 to 2012, resulted in the establishment of 124 marine protected areas (see

Ten of the 14 State Park System marine lease areas are within the much larger designated marine protected areas; four (offshore of Ft. Ross SHP, Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP, Refugio SB and Doheny SB) are not. State Park marine lease areas within designated marine protected areas are under the classification, naming, protection and regulations afforded them under the MLPA. State Park marine lease areas not included in the MLPA designation are not afforded its special protection but have some protection provided by general state laws and regulations, and additional safeguards under provisions in individual lease agreements.

California State Parks continues to build upon its mission and history of underwater resource stewardship in a variety of ways. State Parks plays an active role in the California Marine Protected Area Statewide Leadership Team, a collaborative partnership led by California Resources Agency’s Ocean Protection Council. Underwater natural resource management efforts are guided by a variety of public planning documents, including the 2014 California Collaborative Approach – Marine Protected Areas Plan. Additionally, the department remains focused on protection of submerged cultural resources through project collaboration and partnerships with community organizations, academic institutions, government agencies, and others.