There is nothing quite like diving in the beauty and mystery of a kelp forest; it is truly an awe-inspiring experience! Home to hundreds of species, kelp can be a diver’s perfect paradise for observing a plethora of sea-life and coastal creatures. Requiring a very specialized marine environment, giant kelp is only found in certain climates, namely the coastlines of North & South America, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Otherwise known as, Phaeophyta, (or brown algae), kelp grows best in cold water climates exposed to waves & currents that are rich in nutrients and provide a rocky base for growth. And of course they are sun worshippers! Kelp can sustain itself and grow because of its ability to synthesize carbohydrates using energy from the sun, a process known as photosynthesis.
Northern California hosts some of the most magnificent kelp forests in the world. Along its coastline you’ll find the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the marine habitats that are home to so many wonderful plants and animals, including the majestic giant kelp. The anatomy of a giant kelp plant is similar to that of a tree – where trees have roots, kelp have “holdfasts”, root-like organs that anchor the kelp to rocks on the ocean floor. Where trees have trunks, kelp have “stipes”, long tubular-shafts that connect the holdfast to the kelp’s blades/bladders/fronds. Blades, bladders, and fronds are the equivalent of a tree’s branches and leaves – blades are the leaf like appendages where photosynthesis occurs, bladders are the bubbly air-filled sacs that buoy the kelp towards the surface, and fronds are the multiple stems of blades and bladders that extend and grow out to form canopies on the water’s surface.
Now that you know the basic botany of kelp, let me tell you a little bit about who keeps house in this self-sustaining eco-system. On the kelp forest floor you’ll find brittle stars, camouflaged kelp crabs, red abalone, and sea urchins seeking shelter in the base rock crevices from hungry sea-otters – but these floor dwellers must remain vigilant as predatory Cabezon fish and horn sharks also live in this holdfast neighborhood. As you move up along the stipes, jeweled top snails graze on smaller animals and the kelp itself while senorita fish flirt in large groups and schools of rock fish congregate on the edges, nibbling plankton and jellies that float in close enough. Colonies of bryozoans encrust and share the blades along with turban snails and a variety of smaller invertebrates. Up near the canopy, kelp fish take on the hue and movement of the swaying fronds and those aforementioned pesky sea-otters chill on the surface using the canopy as an aqua-hammock while they groom and digest.
There really are just too many inhabitants to mention so you‘ll want to come check out the myriad of fish, crustaceans, echinoderms, and marine mammals that frequent the kelp forest. In order to do this you’ll want to be as prepared as possible, and follow some basic but important guidelines for diving in kelp. Kelp diving is an incredible adventure and will ultimately make you a better diver! To get the most out of your kelp diving experience there are a few simple rules to follow:
- Streamline your gear – this will help you to avoid getting tangled in the kelp. You’ll want to fasten & secure any loose gauges, octopuses, or fin straps. And if you keep a knife or other equipment on your leg, you should wear it on the inside or perhaps even move it to your BC. The fewer protrusions you have the less likely it becomes for you to get snagged in the kelp.
- Dive with a buddy – in the event you do get a little tangled up in the kelp, your buddy can easily ascertain where the snarl is and assist you in getting clear. Which leads us to an important reminder: kelp is super stretchy & elastic when pulled, but the good news is it can easily be snapped in half! If you ever find yourself or your buddy ensnared in the kelp simply bend or snap the kelp in half to break it and you will be free. You can use your hands, a set of shears or a knife – they all work equally well!
- Move slowly and demonstrate expert buoyancy control – remember to flow with the water’s rhythm. No bush-whacking required! This is a chance to observe and admire the beauty of kelp. Breathe deeply as you move slowly through the natural pathways you’ll find in the kelp forest. If you need to use your hands to move some stray stipes to make a passage-way wider do so slowly and carefully as to prevent damaging any kelp critters in the process. Maintaining excellent buoyancy control is paramount as you’ll want to move fluidly through the kelp as it sways in the water. And as in every dive, you’ll want to avoid ascending too quickly, so you don’t get caught up in the kelp canopy overhead.
- Manage your air supply and navigate – think ahead to how you will end your dive, where you will exit and how much air you will need to do so. Take compass coordinates on the surface before you descend so you can navigate back to your entry point, either near the shore or at the boat’s stern/anchor line. When diving in kelp it is a good idea to surface with at least 700 psi – this will allow you to poke your head up to see if your navigation skills were successful or if there is huge bed of kelp between you and your exit point, you can simply take another directional reading, drop down a few feet and swim under the kelp canopy. In every case, when you are ready to ascend it is preferable to go up a clear vertical water column. However, if you find the canopy coverage thick at the top, you can use your air bubbles to create an opening. Wait and exhale deeply a few times before you start your ascent and your bubbles will float up to move aside any lingering fronds. Alternatively, if you have enough air supply, you can also use your octopus by pressing down on the purge as you circle it above you a few times to create the same affect of bubbles to clear your way. And remember kelp is your friend, when you need to make a safety stop you can use the kelp as a vertical point of reference or even hang on to it in a big swell or surging current, to maintain stability.
- Learn the “Kelp Crawl” – in the event you do find yourself surfaced amidst the thickest kelp canopy on earth and do not have enough air to choose an alternate route remain calm, take a few deep breaths, fully inflate your BCD, pull in any loose equipment, put your snorkel in your mouth and start to crawl forward over and on top of the kelp. The “Kelp Crawl” is not exactly graceful, it is not glamorous but it does work! Moving slowly and steadily, while on your belly use your hands to push down on the kelp in front of you, alternating one arm at a time while you glide over the kelp on the surface and gently kick with your feet behind – do not try and turbo kick through the kelp as it will NOT work and will only succeed in tiring you out and getting you tangled. Slow and steady wins this race! Always move forward, never move backwards or make sudden turns as the kelp can quickly and easily become entangled in your tank valve and hoses. You will be humbled but will eventually arrive at your exit point, (and will plan better next time!)
- Relax and enjoy – kelp diving is terrific fun. You will see more, learn more techniques, improve your existing diving skills, get ready-made photo-ops and have the greatest stories to share with your friends and fellow divers. Get a local orientation and try it with a buddy, or for any kelp enthusiasts, PADI offers continuing education via a distinctive specialty called “Kelp Ecologist”, to further familiarize divers with the skills, knowledge, planning, organization, procedures, techniques, problems, solutions, and enjoyment of diving in kelp. To find out more about this specialty and the unique classes go to . Whatever you choose the best diving awaits you in the kelp!