3. Let's Help the Kelp!



Land or sea habitats? Why not both? The towering strands of kelp rivals the trees in land forests. Kelp forests in our backyard play host to an astonishing amount of life! Dive in and see the treasures off our own coastline and discover what we can do to keep them protected.

From Kyle McBurnie | Dive Photo Guide

What did we do today?

-learned about biodiversity and how kelp supports all kinds of life

-discovered what keystone species are and their importance to healthy ecosystems

-observed live sea urchins and experimented with their behaviours

-got hands on with some animal props, like an otter pelt!

Questions to ask your junior biologist

What is a keystone species? A keystone species is a species that has a HUGE impact on healthy ecosystems. They are species that drastically affect the environment and biodiversity around them.

How did the scientist discover the effects of keystone species? The scientist went down to the beach and threw all the sea stars he saw off the beach. This resulted in the beach being overrun with mussels.

What’s your favourite thing about sea otters? There are lots of things to choose from! Otters have pockets to hold rocks, they are super cute, they have the fluffiest fur, and they’re important to maintaining BC's kelp forests!

Let’s see the kelp!

Through the kelp forest

Kelp plays a similar role to trees in land forests. They provide oxygen, food, and shelter for a lot of animals in the ecosystem. Kelp looks similar to plants, but it’s actually not a plant! It’s a macroalgae. This means it’s an algae that grows large enough for us to see. In fact, they can grow so large, that it can reach upwards of 60m! 

From Surf Science

Kelp may look like a plant, but it has parts of it that differentiate it. Where plants have roots to keep them rooted, kelp has holdfasts to keep it stuck to the ocean bottom. Instead of stems and leaves, kelp has a stipe and blades. One thing that is unique to kelp though, is that kelp has pneumatocysts. These are gas filled bladders that keep the kelp upright in the ocean waves.

Kelp forest ecosystems support a huge amount of life! They are incredibly biodiverse and diving into a kelp forest is like jumping into a ever changing treasure chest. The animals that live down there include the giant pacific octopus, sunflower stars, and lingcod. Check out here and here for a short list of the animals in BC kelp forests! 

Keystone Species

When there’s a large amount of animals interacting in the ecosystem, some species play a more important role. These are keystone species, named after the keystone in a stone arch. If the keystone were to be removed, the remaining arch or ecosystem in this example, would fall apart or be extremely unstable.

An example of keystone species is the sea otter. These cute ocean furballs are crucial to the proper maintenance of BC kelp forests. Coming in anywhere from 14-45kg, otters need a lot of food to keep up their energy. They eat up to 25% of their body weight a day, in fresh seafood from scallops to crabs, and most importantly, sea urchins. 

They eat crab too!

Otters are able to get through the urchins spiny defenses by using rocks to break their food open, or just going in with their sharp teeth. Because they need a lot of food, otters end up eating a lot of urchins, which keeps urchin numbers low. What happened though, was during the fur trade, people started hunting otters for their furs. So much in fact that there were no otters remaining in BC waters. This caused urchin numbers to skyrocket, and the urchins started wiping out kelp forests. Urchins may not look the part, but they do have 5 self sharpening teeth that they use to eat even the toughest foods, like kelp holdfasts!

When large swaths of the kelp forests were eaten up by urchins, productive forests are replaced with urchin barrens. These are as the name implies, barren habitats where kelp has been replaced with urchins. The loss of kelp causes massive loss of habitat for many animals, causing them to move elsewhere and overcrowding the remaining forests. The loss of biodiversity in the area was felt all around. Large predators like sea lions and orcas lost out on prey animals and fishermen in the waters had abysmal catches in urchin barrens.

Urchin Barren- From Tumblr

Following the loss of sea otters, the government of BC saw how important it was to have healthy populations of sea otters in BC, and they brought 89 sea otters from Alaska down to Vancouver Island to establish otters in BC waters. They have since ballooned in number and we are slowly seeing the restoration of kelp forests along BC. Sea otters are crucial to the healthy ecosystems off BC and we need to do everything we can to protect them.

Did you know, a group of otters can be called a raft
From Reddit

Other Cool Kelp Animals

Lots of animals call the kelp forest home, see some of our favourites here, and let us know if you have another worthy inclusion to our list!

Name: Lingcod

Favourite thing about it: Lingcod can be found at certain stores and restaurants under the Ocean Wise symbol, meaning it’s a sustainable and delicious choice for seafood dinners! Plus, some lingcod have blue flesh! This is likely due to a pigment called biliverdin and is destroyed in cooking.

Endangered Status: Not Evaluated

It's so blue!
From Reddit

Name: Giant Pacific Octopus

Favourite thing about it: They are amazingly smart animals that can solve puzzles. They use their 9 brains to solve the trickiest problems they face. They also use their hundreds of suckers to feel and taste everything they come in contact with.

Endangered Status: Least Concern

How do you make an octopus laugh? You give it ten-tickles

Name: Wolf Eel

Favourite thing about it: Wolf eels look mean and grouchy, but they’re actually really shy and will hide in their caves and dens. They also eat sea urchins, and will use their tough mouths to crack open the entire urchin.

Endangered Status: Least Concern

They're r-eel-ly good at eating sea urchins too!

Name: sunflower sea stars

Favourite thing about it: Sunflower stars are the race cars of the sea star world! They can reach tops speeds of 1m/min, for reference, a normal step for an adult human is about 1m. They are still able to race and catch their slower prey, and engulf them with their 21 arms.

Endangered Status: Not evaluated

What a star!

Name: Puget Sound King Crab

Favourite thing about it: They are beautifully ornate crabs, but their wild colours and crazy shell bumps are actually an incredibly useful camouflage technique, allowing them to blend in with the colourful anemones and rocks that adorn the bottom of kelp forests.

Endangered Status: Not evaluated

The bright colours are supposed to help the crab blend in
From UB Diving
They do better in colourful ocean bottoms
From AquaBlog

Name: Opalescent Nudibranch

Favourite thing about it: These nudibranchs will eat sea anemones. They will absorb the stingers from their prey and use it as their own defenses. These tiny sea slugs will also eat each other if they find each other!

Endangered Status: Not evaluated

From Imgur


-Try some sea urchin! Hand harvested uni is delicious and helps reduce sea urchin populations

-Participate or organize a shoreline cleanup! Garbage from the beaches will find a way back into the ocean and affect the ecosystems of our coast!

-Go out and enjoy BC’s natural beauty! December might not be the best time, but it’s still beautiful to see the ocean and mountains! Go out and be inspired!

Learning Objectives

-kelp is an important part of healthy ecosystems

-Keystone species maintain balance in ecosystems

-Understand human effects on ecosystems and biodiversity

Continue to 4. Coral Reef Debrief »