The Coast News Group
A kelp bubble in the Cardiff sand. When the water warms, the kelp dies. Photo by Chris Ahrens

A trip to the kelp

When the sun is out and the water is frigid, ocean kelp can grow over a foot a day. This magical forest, which is home to numerous types of fish, crabs, and clams, also benefits surfers by hindering the effects of onshore wind by smoothing the surface water. All this done without diminishing wave size.

I grew up surfing in Orange County and found great waves in Newport and Huntington Beach during my early years. During that era, we made certain to arrive at the beach at daybreak since the waves would almost certainly be blown out by 10 a.m. when the onshore winds hit.

Imagine my stoke after moving to North County in the summer of 1970 and discovering glassy conditions all day long.

In the ’70s the kelp was regularly harvested by a boat with blades like a massive lawnmower that parked offshore and depleted the forest before our eyes. This led to huge strands being deposited in the lineup and on shore where millions of flies found a free meal. After being dumped off the boat, the kelp was processed to make items like ice cream and cosmetics.

Local surfers so resented this intrusion that we decided to paddle out and anchor ourselves to large strands of seaweed and dare the kelp cutter to run us down. Thankfully, it never came to that and the kelp cutter, due either to economic or legal snags, quit showing up.

I have often swum out to the kelp to look around. The golden strands are spectacular in the sunlight as bass, sheepshead and leopard sharks play hide ’n’ seek and deeper down, strange creatures like brittle stars find shelter from the chaos of the surface.

While serving as a surf instructor for the Grauer School a few years ago, I decided to introduce the class to the wonders of the kelp. The surf was flat as I led the paddle.

Turning around to see the class many yards behind me, I paddled back to them and asked, “What’s the matter?” “We’re scared of sharks,” came one class member’s response as the others nodded in terrified agreement. “There are no sharks here anymore,” I responded, confident in my reply. We continued the journey, had a quick look around and quickly paddled back to shore.

About a month later, tragedy struck as the first shark attack in decades took someone’s life in Solana Beach. There have been no more fatalities since, but shark sightings are now common.

I haven’t visited the kelp forest in quite a while and am overdue for a look. Of course, I will be more apprehensive than I was during the aforementioned class excursion as it seems there are more dangerous creatures haunting our waters now than there were then.

Life can be dangerous for sure, but the biggest dangers come from not living at all. A mask and snorkel and a pair of fins can lead to an adventure you’ll never forget.