My enemy the KELP.

I bet that title threw you off guard! After all, I named my blog Kelli’s in the Kelp because of how much I love the kelp forests and diving off Southern California. However, after the dive I completed last Thursday evening I was ready to pack my bags and say Sayonara! to the chilly, kelp filled waters in search of something warm, clear and free of flowing plant life! Please, allow me to explain.

Thursday night I met up with Richard and Carolyn for what we expected to be an easy night dive at a site I’ve dove several times, Malaga Cove on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. I felt that it would be a good dive, but wasn’t expecting much in the way of visibility, Malaga is a rather shallow dive site, and we’d had a bigger swell roll in along with rain and lots of wind recently which made me think the site would still be a bit stirred up. None of us had really looked at a tide chart; our timing of the dive was dictated by when we were able to get off work and over to the site. I had decided to forgo the camera for this adventure, hoping more to just relax and enjoy the dive while Richard hunted lobsters.

Our usual entry is over the rocks and into the water where you have to wade then swim through some kelp but its typically not that bad. Thursday evening when we reached the rocks something looked wrong. There is usually about 5-10ft of scrambling over rocks before entering the water, but tonight we could see the 5-10ft of dry white rocks, but after that was another 10-15ft of black looking rock, which turned out was wet, kelp covered, extremely slippery exposed rock thanks to an extremely low tide. Carefully we picked our way over these and into the water, where immediately we saw the adverse effects of such a low tide. The significant decrease in water depth meant that all the kelp that usually floated in patches you could swim over or around was now crowding every possible inch of the waters surface, making it nearly impossible to wade through. In addition, water that usually quickly progresses to waist and chest deep then flattens out for a while allowing you swim to slightly deeper depths stayed at ankle to knee depth forcing us to slowly pick our way through this clogged mess of sea flora. Not too far into the seemingly impossible entry we all ended up finding something that tripped us up causing us to fall over. Add in the twisting, clinging kelp on our BCD’s, regulators, guages and any other item that hung off us (thank god I had left the camera and surface marker buoy in the car!) and the dive went from easy to extremely difficult within minutes. Once the depth hit around our knees, the sheer thickness of the kelp started to really tangle as it twisted around our legs, getting caught on my dive knife as I tried to move forward. Once as I reached down to clear a huge chunk that was literally binding me in place my knife slipped out of its sheath, wrapped completely in kelp and I nearly lost it. However I was able to grip the handle and free it; after that I swam like a movie Marine with my knife clenched in my teeth as I continued to try and work my way through this bog. Finally I managed to get deep enough where I could inflate my BCD, clear my legs of kelp and get my fins on. From there it was an effort to slowly crawl over the shifting mass, constantly clearing snags until I reached the wonderfully calm and empty stretch of water just past the main kelp beds.

After what felt like FOREVER, the three of us were able to kick out further than usual to try and make up for the lower tide. We dropped down into a murky soup of 12ft deep water…so much for trying to go out further and hit deeper water. Knowing that we were even or just behind where the site usually is, I lead the group out along the sand until we reached the rock formations and kelp that marked the dive site. Looking at my computer I discovered that we were in about 18ft of water, where there is usually 25-30ft, very strange. The visibility cleared a little bit and we ran across a thornback ray resting in the sand, and I saw a small octopus moving towards the rocks. Continuing on we noticed that the kelp only got thicker, but not like usual. This kelp all looked extremely young. It consisted of very thin strands of anywhere from 3-10 in a bunch all anchored on the rocks and each grouping was spread anywhere from about a foot to a couple feet apart. This little baby kelp was a pain to swim through, as the small strands caught much easier on any exposed gear and the thinness of the strands made it nearly impossible to snap with gloves on. So through and through it we went, Richard looked for lobster, and I managed to grab one myself, though when measured it was a bit too small to keep. The topography of the dive site was the same, nice large rock shelves stretching into the darkness with patches of sand laying between each. Unfortunately the weird abundance of this new small kelp growth made the dive frustrating. There was no calm kicking and weaving in and out of the kelp beds. This was constant pushing and turning and reaching and making every effort to stay on course while plotting an extremely twisted path through the maze of kelp. The kelp pulled at my snorkel, tried to rip out my regulator and kept snagging on my spare light and gauge console. It liked to stick itself into the little gap in my fins pulling me to a complete stop and often wrapped around my ankles making it difficult to remove. Our maximum depth topped out at a whopping 23 feet, and when I surfaced in the middle of the dive to recheck our orientation I discovered that the lower depth meant that the surface was literally choked with kelp, making it difficult to descend back to my dive buddies waiting below. I also noted with a tinge of sadness that the mass of kelp seemed to extend forever on all sides of us, somehow, we had managed to weave our way deep into the kelp bed. Once back down we continued on the dive, trying to stay as much on the heading that should take us out of the kelp mess as quickly as possible. After a few diversions, and the slow progress of getting through the kelp, we all surfaced to check our position once more. By this time I was over it. My hope of a relaxing night dive had turned into a frustrating and difficult journey and I was ready for it to be over. We noticed that we were about 20ft from the end of the kelp bed, so after one more check of the compass we dropped back down and began to kick to freedom. Just after returning to the bottom, I found a small yellow dive light resting between two rocks. It didn’t look too old, so I picked up thinking that at least it didn’t need to sit there and rot. Swimming along I had lost all patience at this point, and stopped trying to carefully pick my way through while stopping to untangle fins or gauges. I just pushed through, kicking furiously at times to just dislodge the kelp from either myself, or its anchor on the rocks below. Just as we neared the glorious looking black open water past the kelp bed we ran over a large horn shark resting on a small patch of sand. Disturbed by our lights, it swam up and around us briefly before taking off into the dark. Once we were free of the kelp we followed our heading to the beach, swimming until the visibility returned to practically zero before surfacing. It appeared we still had quite aways to kick back to the beach, the farther exit point which looked kelp free, there was no way we were going to try and pick our way back through the masses of kelp in the shallow water; much better to have to walk a few extra minutes than to try that!

As we swam in I noticed that the water began to get really shallow while the beach still seemed far away. Before I knew it my fins were hitting the bottom and I discovered I could stand. I looked ahead of my and saw that the beach, which is usually a thin stretch of sand between the rocks had turned into a wide soggy piece of land, littered with lumps of drying kelp. The tide must have been out nearly 50ft from where it usually washed on shore! The exit was incredibly easy compared to the rest of the dive, we simply walked out of the water, across the kelp strewn beach and up over the rocks to the path. As we walked back up the hill to the cars, all I could think about was that I was glad it was over, and that it was high time to find a nice warm, clear place to dive. Perhaps a trip to the tropics is in store next year! The one saving grace for me, was that once back at the cars, I examined my deep sea treasure and found that the light looked pretty new, and not flooded. I tried to turn it on, and while a little stiff, the lever slid over an a faint light spilled out from the light. I guess now I have an extra dive light for that inevitable day that a buddy or a student forgets one, or has a malfunction while diving!

One thought on “My enemy the KELP.

  1. I often surf in Malaga Cove and the PV area and I very much agree; the kelp has gotten outrageously overgrown and dense, even in the surf zone. We surfers are constantly cutting it while we wait for waves, but it’s a losing battle. Ironically, from what I understand the kelp in this area was artificially planted, seeded by humans in the 1970’s, and by now has gotten totally out of hand. Maybe we now need to artificially throw in some huge amount of sea urchins to balance out the kelp? But that would probably cause some other, unforeseen environmental imbalance. It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature, as they say! :>)

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