I grew up deathly afraid of the ocean. But that changed in 2016, when I began mapping South Africa’s kelp forests for my biology master’s degree. I used satellite imagery to find the kelp; then I assessed the potential environmental threats that the forests face, such as unsustainable offshore mining, pollution and even shadows from coastal development.
As I began this survey across the 1,300-kilometre kelp-rich stretch of South Africa’s coastline, I wanted to see the kelp that was below the ocean’s surface. I vividly recall floating on my stomach looking down at this golden, waving forest. I was amazed by the biodiversity that exists underneath this big, blue blanket, including invertebrates, fish and mammals.
In this image, taken near where I first encountered kelp forests off the coast of Windmill beach, south of Cape Town, I am looking for the different types of animal, including limpets, sea urchins and octopuses, that live in these forests. In my advocacy work, I use films and social media to educate the public about how, for example, over half of the atmosphere’s oxygen comes from kelp forests.
So far, we have mapped only coastal kelp because it is visible to satellites during low tide. We hope to use remotely operated vehicles to map the underwater extent of it.
South Africa’s natural kelp forests are among the few that are still expanding. Others around the world are endangered because of over-harvesting or coastal development. In response to increased demand for kelp, for use in products such as toothpaste and possibly as a biodegradable alternative to plastic, my team is building sustainable kelp farms. The government supports a non-lethal harvesting approach in which we collect only the tops of the stalks, allowing the plant to regrow as it continues to provide habitat.
Perhaps the kelp forests’ biggest threat is the lack of awareness or appreciation of how many species call them home. It’s a spiritual place.
Source: Ecology - nature.com