By Julianne E. Steers
“Have you ever seen a forest without any birds, without any trees, without any bees? Have you ever seen a forest under the sea?” –Banana Slug Band
Even on sunny days, our temperate coastal waters may appear to be encircled by a forboding, often steely gray sea. However, there are those rare magical calm days when surrounding seas take on a more inviting hue.
A look beneath the surface reveals a wealth of hidden treasures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the great forests of kelp that are perfectly adapted to thrive in their tumultuous environment. In fact, these waters bring renewed supplies of nutrients to our grand algae. Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) crafts our kelp forests’ densely packed seaweeds up to 100 feet high with an anchorage on the sea bed and blades that float. Held upright by gas-filled floats at the base of their leaf-like blades, kelp fronds grow straight up to the surface, where they spread across the top of the water to form a dense canopy. This provides one of the most biologically productive marine habitats in the ocean, a rich environment for thousands of other marine creatures.
Key to the forest’s survival, and over 800 species it supports, is the ocean’s water quality. Our sea is cyclical. During other parts of the year, it undergoes ebbs and flows of temperatures and compositions. Spring and summer bring the briny coastal warms, whereas fall instigates a cool spike, kicking off the reproductive cycle and making for a continued cool winter, optimal for growth.
When autumn swells dislodge samplings of our glorious algae forests and they float unbridled in the currents supported by hundreds of bladders of ballast, the next journey of key habitat begins. As a kelp paddy, a few strands of algae or more can provide safe harbor for a huge school of fish. Not to mention, it’s also an anchorage for critters as they transition life stages from free-floating larvae to settling down as growing adults, such as barnacles and snails and much more in between.
The next unique habitat is built on shore. Seaweed pushed forth by waves and left above the tide line is called wrack. Kelp wrack has many benefits as an ecological niche in our coastal system that supports several tiers of marine life feeding from it. It branches out the food chain.
Shorebirds, such as oystercatchers, thrive on ungroomed beaches where kelp attracts insects and other small animals, which serve as food for the shorebirds. Our Dana Point shorelines remained unkempt, like a teenager’s room, but in this case the mess is good.
Whether anchored in the sea or washed ashore, giant kelp enhances, supports, and allows life to flourish.