If I had to come up with a short list of the coolest plants in and around San Diego, the giant kelp that grows just offshore would have to be on it. One of the fastest growing organisms on Earth, Macrocystis pyrifera is also the largest type of algae on the planet, capable of growing by as much as two feet a day. Since I wrote a cover story about it for the Reader back in 1987, Southern California’s underwater forests have taken a beating from pollution, competition from sea urchins, discharge from the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, El Niño cycles, and storms. So it was heartening to read the good news reported recently in the Los Angeles Times: after being reduced by up to 80% of their historic range, the local kelp forests have undergone a stupendous recovery, thanks to several mild summers “and an influx of cool, nutrient-rich water.”
Times reporter Tony Barboza quotes one Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine ecologist as saying the forests are now covering an extent not seen since the 1950s. That’s excellent news for all the creatures that live amidst the fronds: fish like sheepshead and surfperch, but also spiny lobsters, crabs, and marine mammals.
A man-made intervention appears to be helping, at least to some extent. In 2008 Southern California Edison crews created an artificial reef off San Clemente by dumping chunks of rock quarried on Catalina Island into 50-foot-deep water there. Intended to help offset environmental damage from the nuke plant, that project, on which the utility reportedly has spent $39 million, has caused the giant kelp within that 174-acre area to increase “dramatically.”