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Kelp – A Surfer’s Guide to the Most Loveable Plant Impersonator in the Water

by Meade Krosby

Meade on a wave

Note: Plant Love Stories recently had it's first LIVE event, as part of the North American Congress on Conservation Biology in Toronto. We heard wonderful plant love stories from amazing storytellers, and will be posting some of their stories in the coming weeks. The audio from the live event wasn't too great (we were in a loud bar), so we

rerecorded the audio when we could.

Our first story is by Meade Krosby. You can hear her story using the video link below or here (soundcloud). A transcript of her story is available below:

This is a story about kelp, which will begin with two caveats. The first is that kelp is not actually a plant, but it is so similar to a plant, I’d argue, that I’m going to give it a pass for the purposes of plant love. Kelp is, in fact, a large brown seaweed, but it could easily be mistaken for a plant. It anchors itself to the ocean floor with a strong, root-like structure called a holdfast, from which a long stem, called a stipe, extends upward, sprouting luxuriant, glossy leaves, called blades, that reach up to the ocean surface to catch the sunlight. Kelp grows in cold, coastal waters, forming large dense patches called forests. When I think about plant love, kelp is the first thing that comes to my mind. Which brings me to my second caveat, which is that my love for kelp is actually more of a love-hate relationship – but it’s mostly love – and that’s because I’m a surfer.

Surfers are very particular about their waves. We want waves with smooth, green faces – these moving walls of water are our canvas, our playing field. For that reason, we typically don’t want to surf waves made by local winds or nearby storms, because these waves are usually messy and weak, making them no fun to surf. We want waves that have traveled long distances, from storms far, far away – storms that we’ll never see. The swells that bring these waves have been groomed by their long journey through the ocean, arriving to us clean and strong and organized, with no sign of the storms that made them. Thus, it’s a real shame when one of these beautiful, long-distance swells arrives but nearby winds have introduced chop to the water, messing everything up. And that’s where kelp comes in. Kelp – with its long straight stems and flowing leaves – acts like a beautiful, glossy comb, or sieve, through the water: the long-distance swells with enough energy pass right through, but messy, low energy local waves hit the kelp and – poof! – disappear. Thus, waves that pass through kelp are groomed – they’re glassy and clean and liquid and perfect. As long as the kelp is in deep water out past where the breaking waves are – and that’s typical of the bull kelp that grows where I live in the Pacific Northwest – then that kelp is a surfer’s best friend.

Sometimes, though, kelp is a surfer’s worst enemy – if you have to paddle through it, or if it’s growing right where the wave you want to surf is breaking – because it is a cruel, slow, Sisyphean experience to paddle through kelp, and if you try to catch a wave in kelp it will stop your board in its tracks and you’ll go flying over the handlebars.

But sometimes, the kelp is in a sweet spot – growing right where the wave you want to surf is breaking, but too sparse or too low in the water to interfere when the wave rises up and it’s time for you to hop on. This is sometimes the case at my favorite surf spot, which has strong currents when the tide is changing, making it almost impossible to stay in the right spot to catch a wave. So, when I’m surfing there and I don’t want to keep paddling on an endless conveyer belt, tiring myself out against the tide, I wrap the kelp around me to stay in place during lulls, like a harness – just like sea otters do when they sleep so they don’t drift out to sea. And it is a magical thing to be floating in the ocean, feeling the pull of the tide, held in the strong, silky arms of kelp.

So, here’s to kelp – the plant that is not a plant, but that is (except when it isn’t) every surfer’s favorite plant in the water.

Meade Krosby is a Senior Scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington and Deputy University Director of the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. When not working to build climate resilience, Meade can be found surfing the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest with family and friends.

Cover photo by Dawson Photography

Kelp forest photo by NOAA

More info:

So is kelp really not a plant? Technically, it's a protist! You can read more here: The Secret Life of Kelp, by Jessica Carilli


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