Forests of the Sea
Each year, close to 2 million visitors get to engage and explore the many worlds of Crystal Cove State Park. Hiking in the backcountry, exploring the tidepools, or enjoying a day in the water are all very popular attractions, but only a fraction of these people explore the world that is just below the water: Crystal Cove State Park’s underwater kelp forest!
Crystal Cove contains over 1,000 acres of offshore underwater protected space that includes a kelp forest, which is one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
The giant kelp can create forests that are over 100 feet tall while growing up to an average of 11 inches a day. Giant kelp is considered an ecosystem engineer because its presence provides habitat for thousands of other marine species, such as marine snails, sea urchins, brittle stars, fish, and even larger animals such as sea otters and pelagic birds.
Crystal Cove’s kelp forest hasn’t always been in such great shape. Beginning in the 1960s, Southern California saw a rapid decline in our kelp forests due to an increased amount of urban runoff and overharvesting of species that kept the kelp forests in balance. By the 1990s, 80% of local kelp forests had disappeared. However, people like Garry Brown, the founder of Orange County Coastkeeper, one of Crystal Cove Conservancy’s partners, noticed this dilemma and took action to help restore our ocean.
“One of the goals was to bring it back,” said Brown, “but first, we had to clean the water, and next, we needed to grow kelp.”
Using a team of 70 volunteer divers, Brown and his team helped restore kelp forest from the south jetty of Newport Beach to Dana Point. Brown explained that they grew kelp on 1-inch strips of kitchen tile inside of a lab. Those strips would later be transplanted out in the field.
For successful kelp growth, the team also needed to remove some sea urchins from the area, since they feast heavily on kelp. To do so, they used a sack, similar to those used by farmers picking oranges, that was designed by Brown to be able to collect sea urchins and relocate them without harming them. Over 18,000 urchins were then relocated outside of the restoration zone.
Thanks to these efforts by Brown and his team of volunteer divers, we have seen a return of kelp forests at Crystal Cove State Park. Today, high school students aboard Crystal Cove Conservancy’s Marine Protected Area Science Cruise help to monitor the health of our local kelp forest by collecting data on the diversity of fish and plankton species, water quality, and ocean chemistry. Through long-term monitoring of Crystal Cove’s kelp forest, we can help Crystal Cove State Park’s environmental scientists catch any potential problems early and ensure the health of our marine species and kelp forest ecosystems for years to come.