Bull kelp creates an ocean forest, and it does this all in a single season. Growing from a tiny spore, a kelp stalk can become 200 feet long, held up by a ball-like bulb that is filled with carbon monoxide. The stalks a pulled up because of the bulb, and long leaf-like blades stream out 10 feet beyond that. In what has to be the fastest growth rate of any large organism, the stalks can grow 2 feet each day if conditions are right. By fall, kelp begins to die back, but they’re tough plants that can take months to decay, and huge piles of them often wash ashore after a storm. Flexible stalks can stretch a third of their length without breaking, showing their stamina in the tidal and surf zone.
So, just like forests on land, kelp forests are rich with wildlife, providing resting places for otters, gulls, shorebirds and water birds. The leaf blades branch from the bulbs and spread out to float on the surface, much like a forest canopy. Underwater, the blades and stalks are homes for snails, crabs, shrimp, starfish, sea anemones and many others. A plant the size of bull kelp needs a good foundation, so they grow a ‘hold fast’ that attaches to rocks. When I first learned to sail in the Northwest and outer coast, a salmon fisherman clued me in. “Stay away from those kelp beds because they mean rocks down there, but if you can get behind them, it’s like a sheltered bay!”
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.