Featured Creature: Giant Kelp

Which creature creates forests underwater, provides food and shelter for countless species, and helps stabilize the climate?

Giant Kelp!

Photo from MIT Technology Review

Under the sea

To witness the beauty of kelp, and watch how it contributes to the survival of numerous marine and terrestrial creatures, you have to go underwater. Although kelp looks like a plant, it is actually a type of algae and is part of the kingdom Protista. Most creatures in this kingdom are single-celled organisms, but Giant Kelp has complex cells and is the largest protist.

Giant Kelp reside in cold, clear, nutrient-rich waters. Unlike plants, they lack roots, so they attach themselves to hard, rocky seafloors. Along their ‘branches,’ they have sacs filled with gas that allow them to grow upright, and they can reach heights of more than 100 feet (30 meters). They truly are giant! Once they grow tall enough to reach the sea’s surface, they begin to grow sideways – extending their reach. 

Another side effect of not having roots is the inability to get nutrients from underground. Luckily for kelp, they get all the nutrients they need from the sea water surrounding them. They do, however, act like plants when it comes to photosynthesis. Giant Kelp utilize the sun’s energy rather than feeding on other creatures (I suppose even protists can decide when they want to be plant-like).

Photo from Reef Check

The rainforests of the ocean

Giant Kelp will grow in bunches where conditions are right, such as the west coast of North- America, forming underwater forests. These forests provide food and shelter for thousands of animals including sharks and bony fishes, invertebrates such as lobsters and squids, marine mammals such as seals and sea otters, and birds such as cormorants and snowy egrets. In turn, all of these animals help maintain balance in this ecosystem, as exemplified by sea otters who eat sea urchins – a notorious kelp eater. The sheer amount of biodiversity held within kelp forests has earned the algae its nickname, “rainforest of the ocean.”

Kelps feed creatures far away from their underwater forests as well. When pieces of the algae detach and end up on beaches, coastal-living animals take advantage of its many nutrients. Decomposing kelp finds its way to the bottom of the deep sea where creatures surrounded by darkness welcome the newfound treasure.

Animals also love Giant Kelp’s thick blades that provide a barrier between them and predators. This barrier comes in handy when storms occur, too, as they decrease the intensity of incoming waves and currents. In other words, without kelps, millions of individuals would suffer – including us humans. 

Photo from Smithsonian Ocean

Delicious algae

Many people have taken to kelp farming to restore coastal waters, and to harvest the many benefits Giant Kelp has to offer. We can eat kelp outright, or use it to create materials that go into a variety of products – from soaps and glass to toothpaste and ice cream (yum!).

In food products you normally wouldn’t find kelp, the algae is intentionally added for its many vitamins and minerals including iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, amino acids. Kelp can even be taken as a vitamin supplement, or added to other vitamins for an extra boost. Although you may not be used to kelp-based soups and other dishes, you may want to learn some new recipes to get all these amazing benefits!

Photo from Healthline

Our fellow ecorestorer

There’s a second reason Giant Kelp forests are considered ‘rainforests of the ocean’ – they help sequester carbon. Since kelp can photosynthesize, they are one of the many species converting carbon into oxygen. Often this job is assigned to the plant kingdom, but as we know, kelp like to partake in some aspects of the plant party. The formation of oxygen also helps keep the ocean’s pH in balance, and it’s one of the reasons why these underwater forests are a shelter for many. 

As the planet and oceans warm, sequestering carbon is becoming more urgent and more difficult as emissions continue to rise. Thank you, Giant Kelp, for being an ecosystem-making, nutrient-bearing, carbon sequestering all around rockstar! 

To support the important work of kelps, we can adopt sustainable fishing practices that prioritize the health of coastal marine communities. See how one group in the United Kingdom is already taking this on:

For the oceans.

By Tania Roa