A love letter to California’s underwater ecosystems

Here’s a video I put together to summarize one of the best weeks of my life. I was so happy to share California’s kelp forests & wild islands with one of my best friends, Jacey, a fellow mermaid and marine biologist. We had incredible encounters with bottlenose & common dolphins, ocean sunfishes (Mola mola), giant black sea basses, sea lions and harbor seals, and sooo much Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) at Santa Catalina Island, Anacapa Island, the Santa Barbara Channel, Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach, and La Jolla.

Although I’ve been able to travel a lot in these 8 months off of school, I still find nothing more beautiful than the ocean here at home, in California. Normally, I like to keep this blog’s word count low, but I collected my thoughts recently for an interview about California’s kelp forests and thought I would share them here:

The kelp forests that thrive in the cold (50-60°F), productive waters off the coast of Catalina Island, the Channel Islands, and Monterey in California. Kelp forests offer a dynamic vertical structure in which flora and fauna adorn the entire water column. The structural complexity of kelp forests, their vibrant colors, and constant instability captivate me. When the water clears up and the sun shines down through a shallow kelp bed, rainbows are scattered across the ocean floor, illuminating brightly colored orange garibaldi and their fishy friends.

One rainbow dances on the rocky den of a two-spotted octopus, while another reflects off the sharp teeth of a California Moray, the octopus’s primary predator. Sea lions and seals dash in and out of the thick forest. Their grace and speed are astounding. A clearing in the kelp leads to dozens of rockfish, hanging paralyzed and static in the water column. Brightly colored orange garibaldi hide under rocky outcroppings. Their juvenile counterparts are adorned with electric blue highlights that match the blue-banded gobies which flit amongst the rocks.
Huge rocky surfaces are entirely covered by colonies of strawberry anemones, brilliantly colored cobalt blue sponges, and tiny orange cup corals. The tentacles of tube anemones sway in concert with the elegant stipes of kelp. The modified limbs, cirri, of giant acorn barnacles emerge for a fraction of a second. A flash of neon blue is visible briefly as the barnacle quickly targets floating food particles.
If you are lucky, you may encounter the rare and critically endangered Giant Sea Bass, which swims slowly amongst the kelp and can grow to be over seven feet long. A little bit farther off shore, apex predators such as transient, mammal-eating killer whales and great white sharks play their part in the circle of life, orchestrating attacks on sea lions, gray whale calves, and dolphins.
Another striking feature about the kelp forests, is the speed at which they can change. At the delicate growing tip of a kelp stipe, one blade of kelp gives rise to dozens of new kelp blades and pneumatocysts (the air bladder attached to each blade). This process occurs at an incredible rate and each kelp stipe will grow two feet in one day. This process is impeded by both abiotic and biotic factors. Natural abiotic factors such as huge storms and swells can uproot whole kelp forests and result in huge disruptions of the marine ecosystem. I have dove in Monterey before and after storms and seen the barren, torn ocean floor that remains in their wake.

At the delicate growing tip of a kelp stipe, one blade of kelp gives rise to dozens of new kelp blades and pneumatocysts.

 As far as humans are concerned, the threats include, but are not limited to, anthropogenic pollution, tourism, and dredging, which can have drastic impacts on these marine ecosystems and seaweeds in particular. In addition, a delicate biological balance is necessary in order for this complex kelp forest ecosystem to thrive. Purple urchins can voraciously consume kelp forests. They aggregate at the base of the kelp, at its holdfast, and their tiny teeth gnaw at the plant matter until fine strands snap and the kelp floats away. If the sea urchins are not eaten and their numbers are not regulated by sea otters, the kelp cannot survive. Therefore, if the number of sea otters drops, giant kelp often pays the price.

Other factors can also affect the kelp forest ecosystem, such as overfishing, disease, and malnutrition. As you might expect, there are marked, visible differences in the diversity and abundance of species between the Marine Protected Areas in Catalina, Channel Islands, and Monterey and areas in which fishing is allowed. I have seen thousands of diseased sea stars from as far south as Los Angeles and as far north as Friday Harbor, Washington. Sea Star Wasting Disease is due to a temperature-sensitive virus which has been decimating sea star populations along the coast. In my time at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, I saw many sea lions sick with Domoic Acid Toxicosis, the result of bioaccumulation of domoic acid, a naturally occurring biotoxin. In addition, I witnessed the recent increased occurrence of sea lion stranding due to malnutrition in the wake of the most recent El Niño event. The El Niño Southern Oscillation is caused by the weakening of the Easterly winds and the resulting shift of the thermocline (barrier between warm and cold water) downward in the eastern North Pacific, causing a warm temperature anomaly off the coast of California. Last summer, I participated in marine mammal surveys with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography, in which we observed anomalously more tropical species, than in previous years. Extreme weather events are occurring more frequently have proved to be very detrimental to marine ecosystems, causing significant changes in food availability and habitat structure.

As a huge population of primary producers, forests of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) perform an important ecological role in the marine ecosystem not only by performing photosynthesis, but also by balancing fragile coastal food webs. Humans heavily depend on the marine food stock which is stabilized and composed of the kelp forest and the organisms which live above it, below it, and at its periphery. In addition, seaweeds are important ingredients in many products with medicinal and industrial uses as well as in cosmetics, foods, and toothpaste. For these reasons, as well as the touristic value of kelp forests, the ecosystem is of intrinsic economic importance. Although the aesthetic allure of the kelp forests alone is enough to argue their value, their contribution to our economy, products, and the very oxygen we breathe, proves their undeniable impact on our lives.

Personally, the kelp forests had a huge role in inspiring me artistically and academically toward my current roles as an illustrator, educator, and student of Marine Biology. They regularly motivate me to cover myself with seven millimeters of neoprene and submerge myself in water with temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for over an hour. Last semester, I dove and collected live organisms for the Integrative Biology department at Berkeley and was able to literally bring the kelp forest to campus, as an educational tool for the Invertebrate Zoology class and for hundreds of children at Cal Day. The excitement on each child’s face that day, the spark and desire to learn more, is the power of these kelp forests.

My desire is that my photos, my drawings, and my scientific projects can communicate the delicate intricacy of the ecosystem I hold so dear and communicate the urgency of preservation and conservation of all of our ocean ecosystems.

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