Know your Neighbours: Kayaking with Kelp

April-May 2002

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
To download a pdf copy of the magazine click here: > DOWNLOAD

by Bryan Nichols

Kelps are big brown algae. When people think of seaweed they are often thinking of kelps, though seaweeds can be red or green algae as well (last issue's checklist #23). The Northwest has all sorts of interesting kelps to paddle with, and a couple of them get big. Tree big. Forest big.

Kelp forests are one of the niftier coastal habitats in the Northwest. From shore, they're tangled mats or a bunch of bobbing brown balls. From a boat, they are helpful markers of reefs, areas to be avoided.

Ah, but from a kayak-yowsa! You have to love them. Anchors on demand. Protection from swell and current. And best of all, there are oodles of critters to be found in them. Aim your boat into the smooth brown fronds and park. Slide a couple under a deck bungee. Get comfortable, and stay alert. Below and around you, the world of the kelp forest will come out of hiding. Greenlings moving below, seals patrolling the edges, crabs scuttling across the fronds, schools of herring taking refuge.

All Northwest kelps are attached, usually by a structure called a holdfast that looks something like a small disc, a bunch of spaghetti-or perhaps a clump of tiny fingers. The main part of the kelp is typically a stipe (stem) and one or many blades.

As with most algae, taxonomy gets a bit blurry. Many can be easily identified only to genus, not species. And common names are a mess-few books use the same name for the same kelp and food sources often apply Japanese names, sometimes incorrectly (I've used the common names from the new Pacific Seaweeds). There are brown algae (like sargassum and the rockweeds) that often get called kelp, even though kelps are more officially all in Order Lamiariales (the first three on this list aren't). Different kelps can look very similar, and the same species can look remarkably different, depending on where it grows. That's one of the reasons there are so many birders and so few kelpers, I suppose.

Kayakers can experience kelp forests like no other boaters, so check them out in serene bays, current swept passages and the open coast. Be careful of course-especially in large swell and strong current. Big kelps have evolved to hold fast in some pretty extreme conditions, so don't be lulled into a false sense of security. But paddle in, poke around, gently pull up a frond or two. It's a whole new world under your boat.

© Bryan Nichols ( loves floating on and diving under kelp forests. He has never whipped anyone with bull kelp- unless they deserved it.



Sea Vegetables, Harvesting Guide & Cookbook, Evelyn McConnaughey Naturegraph, 1985, 239 pp, $9.95 US ISBN 0-87961-151-0

Evelyn McConnaughy is a biologist from the University of Oregon. She has good grounding for this book-a dietician mother, a marine biologist husband and five children to test meals on. She obviously loves both the ocean and experimental cooking, and is able to convey her enthusiasm and knowledge in print. As for the recipes, there are lots of them, of all different sorts including vegetarian (she's a fan of soy, especially tempeh), snacks, desserts, sauces, salads, hors d'oeuvres and plenty of pickles. The recipes are influenced by various ethnic foods, from jambolayas to spanakopitas. There's something for everyone to appreciate in this collection.


CHECKLIST #24 - Northwest Kelps


(Fucus & Pelvetiopsis)

Rockweed and dwarf rockweed are probably the most noticeable seaweeds for kayakers. They grow so abundantly they form that familiar brown band in the upper tidal range. The swollen tips contain a clear mucous that swollen tips contain a clear mucous that has a variety of alleged properties (some more credible than others) including sunscreen, moisturizer, fat burner and healer of everything from headaches and high blood pressure to gout, gas and goiter.


Leathesia difformis (Leath’s contorted )

Sometimes called brainweed because it looks like a collection of small brains on the beach. Cauliflower or brains—what shall we eat tonight, dear?

It often grows attached to other seaweeds and can be locally abundant.



Sargassum muticum & Cystoseira geminata

These similar looking algae form thick beds, usually in shallow, more protected waters.

Bladder leaf is native and has pointy little floats.

Round-floated sargassum hitched a ride with Japanese oysters way back at the turn of the century.

It has successfully spread again, hitching another ride from here to Europe in the 1970s.


Laminaria sp. (thin leaf)

A couple of species of Laminaria (often called sugar kelp) grow long, oval shaped brown blades, sometimes with wrinkles and sometimes with torn ends and splits. They can cover the bottom just below the lowtide mark, hiding all sorts of different things. On open coasts, “split kelp” or L. setchellii is common and easy to recognize by its deeply split blades on short stipes. Called kombu by the Japanese, Laminaria species are used extensively in cooking. Legend has it if you add a blade to your pot of beans you’ll have a more romantic evening.


Hedophyllum sessile (seat shaped and stalkless)

This wrinkled brown kelp grows right off the holdfast but its final shape depends on the location. Somewhat small and mangled looking in surf, the blades become large(80cm) and wrinkly when protected. I

t can be thick in the lower tidal ranges.


Pterygophora californica (bearing wings)

How can you resist a kelp that walks?

And might reach 25 years old? The name comes from First Nations noticing that this kelp often moved. Walking kelp attaches itself to bits of cobble but when it grows big enough, waves will move the kelp and the rock with it.


Alaria sp. (wing)

Alaria species (there are about 7) all have a long brown blade with a cluster of projections near the base, presumably the wings. These are sporophylls, special blades that have patches of reproductive spores on them. It’s a popular food kelp on both coasts,


Egregia menziesii (Menzie’s remarkable)

This big (to 15m) kelp looks like a fashion accessory run amok. It gets thick enough to form beds in shallow water and prefers areas near (but not in) wave action.


Costaria costata (rib)

With three ribs on one side and two on the other, this kelp is aptly named—especially since the big blades themselves look quite different depending on how wavy the area is.

In sheltered waters the blade is long and narrow while in surf it grows in a big, wrinkled egg shape.


Postelsia palmaeformis (Postel’s palm shaped)

Looking remarkably like little groves of palm trees growing at the top of the tide zone, this hardy kelp loves the surf and can take a pounding.

The fronds are tasty but you’ve got to be wary of surf to get near them.


Nereocystis luetkeana (mermaid’s bladder)

The kelp forests found in protected waters inside Vancouver Island are composed of bull kelp, which has a single, large float at the top of a long smooth stipe.Remarkably, individuals are almost all annual though they may reach 36 meters—that’s some fast seasonal growth! If conditions are right bull kelp will form a solid canopy over reefs by the end of summer. Washed up on the beach, the long, whiplike stipes have contributed to many Indiana Jones fantasies.


Macrocystis integrifolia (large bladder)

You have to like giant kelp. Growing out on the open coast in huge beds, it’s popular with sea otters and a host of other critters. Our species (there is another in California) grows to 30 meters, forming dense and diverse underwater “forests”.

See a complete listing of all of Bryan's Checklists and articles

© Text: Bryan Nichols.
© Images: Bryan Nichols
no reproduction without permission.