Kelpfesting, Then and Now
Thirteen thousand years ago our Laguna Beach ancestors likely celebrated the life-giving bounties of kelp. These ancient Californians or their forebears, like countless other coastal dwellers along the western shoreline of the Americas, had voyaged along what University of Oregon anthropologist Jon Erlandson calls the “kelp highway.” The term refers to the offshore route rich in kelp beds and all of the marine life clustered about this food trail that brought seafaring Asians to the Americas long before the dawn of recorded history.
Use your imagination. Envision on our beaches scantily clad folk adorning themselves with kelp headwear and necklaces, dancing, chanting and drumming to the rhythmic flowing and ebbing of the tides. Thanks would have been given for the sustenance in fish, mussels, clams, lobster, abalone, octopi, and other delicacies old Neptune (or his mythical predecessors) had bestowed on Lagunans. A kelp soup might have warmed the stomachs of the celebrants as the afternoon breezes cooled and the sun began to set.
Now fast forward to Saturday, April 16, 2011. While Lisa Marks served her homemade kelp soup to Lagunans attending this year’s Kelpfest, organized superbly by marine biologist Nancy Caruso, celebrants and curious onlookers visited a dozen booths supplying information on how best to protect our marine environment.
Particularly interesting was the live film being viewed by young and old alike sitting on the grass as they watched and listened to psychiatrist and scuba diver Dr. Debra Hill describe what she was seeing at a depth of 25 feet just off Main Beach. While the eyes of watchers were on the screen, filmmaker Greg MacGillivray had his camera on the audience, capturing their oohs and ahs during the live feed from offshore. His wife, Barbara, stood nearby, observing and taking in the excitement as a smiling Greg captured on film the joys and wonder on the faces of the screen watchers. The MacGillivrays, who are preparing their “One World Ocean” initiative, honed in on what it is that engages us, even mesmerizes us at times, about the sea. Put another way, Dr. Hill told me afterward: “The ocean world is so much more than a sunset.”
In the middle of the exhibit area stood a remarkable structure, a work of modern art, representing a kelp forest. It resembled a large mobile with kelp strands dangling from crossbars and situated amid various colorful forms depicting marine life. The artist, Roman Hipolito, is an eighth-grader who carried out the project as part of his Eagle Scout requirements.
At one of the booths I spoke at length with Huntington Beach High School teacher Greg Gardiner, who teaches Advanced Placement classes on environmental science. Several of his students displayed their use of the scientific method in addressing environmental issues on large boards positioned on tables. One particular board was devoted to the issue of depleted fish stocks. The student who presented the board defined the problem, offered a hypothesis, and listed his findings. “Comparing the population of White Sea Bass from the 1950s to today’s population of White Sea Bass, the populations have dramatically declined throughout the decades.” With the problem thus stated, based on his research methodology the student concluded that “overfishing of our local waters” had been the primary cause of the depletion. Classes like Mr. Gardiner’s will doubtlessly help produce America’s next generation of marine biologists.
Other exhibits, as well, helped educate us on ocean-related issues. The South Coast Water District distributed handouts on water conservation strategies and techniques. The Laguna Ocean Foundation, the nationwide Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the Ambassadors of the Environment also furnished attendees with useful printed information on ocean ecology.
Laguna Beach has been an integral part of the Pacific Rim’s “Kelp Highway” since ancient times. I can think of no better way to spend a springtime afternoon than Kelpfesting like those living here long before us.
Tom Osborne, author of two books with a third under contract, is a retired Santa Ana College history professor and a recent recipient of the city’s Environmental Award.