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

In praise of the great kelp forest

Does anyone remember the “kelp cutter,” that big, ugly boat that used to park offshore and harvest kelp for items like shampoo and ice cream?

The results of that harvest may have been good for some businesses, but it was bad for the environment — and for surfing.

First off, the kelp is home to numerous sea creatures, all of which gather in deadly games of hide-and-seek where they ambush one another.

I have participated in that game on occasion, hiding behind a large strand to surprise a kelp bass or a sheepshead with the tip of my spear.

Sea lions dart in and out of the golden strands, seeking prey while sharks patrol the region like the gangsters of the sea they are.

After the kelp cutter trespassed into the homes of fish, it worked to disrupt the surfing world. Huge clumps of seaweed would escape the boat’s hull and find their way to the beach, where it made surfing difficult by catching onto our fins.

By then, the only creatures that lived in the kelp were flies and various other vermin that enjoy a meal of dead plants.

Thankfully, cutting the kelp, which is a communal resource, was outlawed in California in 1992.

Have you ever wondered why the waves in parts of North County are glassy while others are blown out? Thank the kelp forest.

Kelp requires a structure to grow on, so you will most likely find it floating outside of a reef break. Kelp is a surfer’s friend. While it does nothing to cut down the size of a wave, or decrease its speed, it holds down chop, making for fun waves when other spots are unsurfable.

Each year, the kelp dies off in response to the warming water of summer. Then, large clumps float to the beach and deposit themselves in mounds that can run up to several feet tall.

Loose kelp can also be dangerous if you catch your leash in it. When I first heard about this problem, I figured it would be easy to remove a cord once it was tangled in kelp. That was until it happened to me.

I was riding a wave, ran over a massive kelp ball, my leash caught, and I fell. I was tangled in a Medusa of kelp ribbons, and when I reached to release my leash, I realized that the current was pulling me away from my board.

Regardless of how I tried, I simply couldn’t reach it. Not until the wave completely released me from its grip was I able to detach myself from my board.

Another time, I nearly drowned when I was surfing without a leash. After being pushed beneath a massive kelp ball, I was unable to swim directly to the surface.

Don’t worry but be aware that loose kelp can be problematic.

The kelp is thinning this year in response to the warm water that is making surfing so pleasurable in our area. Newcomers to our sport might think this is a catastrophic and permanent event, but they needn’t worry.

Sunny days with cold water will soon return, and when they do, the kelp will grow up to a foot a day.

If you are a good swimmer in search of a fun adventure, grab a pair of fins and kick your way out to the kelp. You might be surprised at what you find there.

Chris Ahrens’ latest passion project can be viewed at: