Tips on how to properly dive in kelp forests are presented. A technique for overcoming the fear of diving in kelp forests is also presented. Divers should make sure that their equipment are properly arranged and should know the environment immediately surrounding the kelp beds.

If you are looking for action, head for a kelp bed. Found along the cold water coastlines of all continents, the brown algae known as kelp forms a nursery and a local hangout for all types of sealife.

Each species of kelp has its own distinctive shape, color and habitat. For size, quantity and importance to sport scuba divers, Macrocystis, the Giant Bladder Kelp of Southern California, and Nereocystis, the Bull Kelp of Northern California, are the ones to find. These kelp attach to rocky bottom terrain and form a forest of plants. Drawing nutrients from the water and sunlight, kelp grows rapidly. Scientists have reported Giant Bladder Kelp growing more than a foot a day.

These plants attach to the bottom by a tangled mass of root-like runners called holdfasts. Kelp does not have roots like a plant but rather many fingers that hold onto the rocky bottom. The holdfast is a nursery for eggs and wee critters. There is safety inside the jumble from predators and environmental forces.

Of course, where you find the tiniest members of the food chain, the medium and large sized members follow. Reef fish seek the food and protection of the kelp stalks and larger pelagics cruise the kelp bed’s edge.

Kelp needs light for photosynthesis, so it usually grows in water less than 100 feet deep. The thickest beds are in 30 to 60 feet of water. Kelp reproduces by microscopic spores and is most often found in an area defined by depth, water temperature, water quality and the needed rocky bottom. Kelp beds appear to be a floating mass of brown seaweed when viewed from shore. Individual kelp stalks are about the diameter of a pencil but several stalks grow out of a holdfast and become intertwined as they reach for the surface. The stalk, or stipes and fronds, is held up by small gas-filled bladders at the base of each frond.

Kelp is remarkably strong when you try to stretch, pull and break it. This longitudinal strength keeps it from breaking during the constant tugging from waves, tides, currents and wind. However, Giant Bladder Kelp stalks snap easily when you bend them at a 90 degree angle. You’ll have a hard time winning a tug-of-war with a kelp stalk but fold it over with two fingers and it splits apart.

Kelp is not an enemy but the biggest friend of divers along Pacific Coast. The key is learning how to reap the benefits of diving in a kelp bed and avoid the inconveniences. Swimming along the floor of a bed is like walking through a forest – you have to avoid running into the trees or being hit by branches. If you walked through a forest with your arms spread out, dragging your feet and twirling in circles, you would trip or get smacked by a branch. It works the same in a kelp forest. Tuck in your arms, pick up your feet and watch where you are going! Following are some practical tips to combine with common sense and make kelp diving a breeze.

How to dive in kelp forests

Pre-Dive Equipment Planning

Think streamline. Review your equipment and tape loose strap ends in place, trim off excess lengths and remove hanging items. Plan how to tuck in gear that normally dangles, such as consoles. Will your console go in a BC pocket or slide between your BC and wetsuit?

Move your gear to present a smoother outside body edge. Rotate your knife so it is on the inside of your calf, not on the outside. Consider taking gauges off your forearm and using a console. Thread your snorkel so it is under your mask strap, rather than attached to the outside. Consider carrying fewer or smaller accessories such as goodie bags, lights, cameras and slates. Don’t hang anything from your weightbelt. You can’t see your hips when swimming and anything sticking out seems to reach out and grab the kelp as you swim by.

Environmental Indicators

Once at the dive site, use the kelp to “read” what is going on in the water and decide how to plan your dive or even whether to attempt a dive that day.

Is kelp floating on the surface? If so, there is probably little current. If the kelp canopy has disappeared or looks much smaller, it may be sucked underwater by a strong current.

How far down a kelp stalk can you see? This viewing depth is a good indicator of the visibility. A rule of thumb is that the horizontal visibility in Southern California is usually two to three times the distance you can see down a kelp stalk.

Is the kelp canopy bobbing up and down? This commonly means there are waves or surge passing through. The more bobbing, the more water movement. You may need to reevaluate whether or not to dive.

What shape is the kelp bed? Since kelp attaches to rocks, you can tell the approximate size and shape of the reef. Is the area big enough to be worth swimming a distance offshore to see?

Tips For Diving In Kelp

Go with the flow. There is a rhythm to the kelp swaying with the surge. You should have the same rhythm. When the kelp floats to the side, it is your chance to slip through the opening. This is the same principle as riding the surge.

Don’t make sudden turns. Turns lead to snags and entanglements. Try to keep your body position long and streamlined. If you have to look back, bend forward and look underneath your body, versus making a U-turn with your shoulders.

Follow the natural open spaces. There are paths or open spaces in the kelp. By swimming a zigzag route through these openings, you lessen entanglement. Use your hands to gently push the kelp stalks to the side, widening your route.

Let your rising bubbles create open surface spaces. When ascending, select a clear vertical column of water. If you pause on the bottom and exhale several times, your exhaust bubbles will rise and gently float the kelp fronds aside, enlarging a hole on the surface. This only works in calm waters and moderate kelp canopies. For heavy surface kelp you may need to swim up and part a space to poke your head out. If you surface in kelp this thick, think ahead about the chances of kelp hanging up on your tank valve and the difficulty your buddy might have getting there to assist you.

Surface Kelp Crawl Techniques

It is not easy to surface swim through thick kelp. The “kelp crawl” is the most reliable way to traverse a long distance. Once you miscalculate your location or air supply and are forced to surface mid-kelp bed, then crawl out on the surface, you probably won’t do it again for a long time!

Anything that is dangling should be tucked inside a pocket or under your BC. Stretch out on your stomach, with your hands and arms in front of your chest, gently push the kelp down directly in front of you. At the same time give shallow, gentle kicks with both feet. You will glide a short distance forward. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you slide out of the kelp.

If you stretch your arms too far, you won’t have enough leverage and the kelp will float up and catch on your BC before you pass over it. If you kick too deep or hard, the kelp wraps around your fins and legs. Kelp crawling is a slow, gentle movement.

Escape Tactics

It is perfectly normal on a kelp dive to get caught by a few stipes. No big deal. The key is not to get ridiculously entangled or, if you do get snagged, know how to get free.

When you notice forward progress is slowed, you are probably dragging a kelp stalk. Stop kicking. If you are not neutrally buoyant, adjust your buoyancy (air in or out of your BC) so you can maintain position. Cautiously and slowly look to see where you are snagged. Start with your feet, since fin straps are the typical source of the problem. Be careful not to get vertical in the water or turn around quickly. If you do, the kelp may wrap around your tank valve, where it is tough to untangle on your own.

To remove kelp, turn to gently pull it off. It if is wrapped, pulling won’t work – remember the elastic trait? Pick up each individual strand and bend the stalk to snap it, then let it fall away. Avoid hacking with a knife. The danger of cutting yourself or dropping the knife is high, so a knife is a last resort.

If you see your buddy entangled, swim over and give him/her the “hold” signal. Then, pick off the kelp. His/her twisting around to help usually makes a simple task messier. If all else fails, the last resort is to take off the entangled piece of equipment and remove the kelp. If snapping does not work and you don’t have a knife, then bite it. Don’t chew or swallow.

Overcoming Kelp Phobia

If you are avoiding kelp diving because of “kelp fear,” here’s a method of overcoming the problem. Take an afternoon and play Sea Otter with a skin diving buddy. Snorkel out to the bed. Touch it. Smell it. Decide it does not bite. Swim around the perimeter of the bed and begin to enjoy its color, shape and gentle movement. You’ll find the appreciation of its great beauty will begin to replace the fear. When you are ready, try some short kelp crawls. Kick over a few strands. Then work your way up to thicker areas. Practice pushing the kelp down and gliding over the surface.

When you are ready to graduate, grab the end of a stipe and roll up like a sea otter. You’ll be anchored! Relax and watch what happens – the kelp will slowly loosen and begin to float away from your body, until you can slide free. When floating on the surface, you become a part of the reef community. You may even notice small fish congregating under you. As a silent reef spectator you’ll see fish going about their normal routine, which is fascinating. Gain respect for this remarkable plant and know that, by overcoming your fear, you are ready to venture underwater and explore the kelp forests.


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