TipSheet on How To Dive KELP in California

©2005Aug17 Barnett.S&N
(rev 03.2006.0212)

©2004.KAshman - BestoftheBest  Quintessential KELP Diving
BestoftheBest  Quintessential California KELP Diving
(courtesy of and with permission ©2004 KenAshman)

California kelp forests are enchanting wondrous habitats. Learning how to dive kelp safely is a lot of common sense plus competent habit in dive skills and a little bit extra. Kelp risks are insidious to the inexperienced, new, or "rusty" SCUBA diver. Kelp can be immediately challenging for the uninitiated. Here are some KELP diving  tips to ponder.

There are numerous species of kelp. Two of which are abundant in southern California: the GiantKelp(Macrocystis pyrifera) and the PalmKelp(Potelsia palmaeformis). They are photosynthetic algae, dependent upon sunlight. Both plants are greenish gold. They both grow on rocky substrates. They don't grow in sand. They don't grow in deep water. The GiantKelp grows in depths not much deeper than recreational diving limits - approx. 100ft and shallower. GiantKelp has a distinct bottom, middle, and top to the plant. The root-like bottom is called a holdfast, the middle has 1-to-many 3/4inch stalks, called stipes, braided together off of which come many "leaves"/fronds; each frond grows from a balloon-like air-filled bulb/bladder, called a pneumatocyst, which "floats" each frond surfaceward; the top stretches very long distances along the surface and combined with all the other nearby plants form a thick 1-5ft "forest canopy" covering the ocean surface. In an emergency, this "canopy" can be so thick as to be impenetrable from below therefore akin to cave diving and must be treated with respect. Underwater it's like a wonderous walk among the trunks of trees in a dense forest (or rather more like floating through the upper understory among its golden branches).  PalmKelp(2-3ft tall) can grow at depths deeper than GiantKelp. PalmKelp has a thick stalk with approx. 1/2 dozen fronds coming out its top. Fields of PalmKelp "carpet" about and between where GiantKelp grows.  Beneath the PalmKelp "carpet" is a whole other 'mini' habitat for all sorts of interesting critters. In winter, when the angle of the sun is lower in our latitude's sky, when not as much sun light reaches the plants, kelps become brittle and anemic looking; winter kelp beds are easily broken up by rough ocean and storm conditions. Summer or winter, rougher ocean surface conditions and large swell will be evident by formation of lightish-brown surface "foam"; caused by agitator-like/washing-machine-like swell action of the kelp canopy in the ocean surface water.

Possibly none of the below will apply; you've been assured of easy dives, nevertheless, just in case ...

IMHO, how to dive kelp in California  is an advanced SCUBA activity.  Diving kelp requires not only Advanced Class knowledge, but also competent skills and experience. You must be skilled in personally planning and executing your own dive plans. You need existing habit in proper weighting, so you may maintain excellent buoyancy, while you compass navigate, into dark cave-like overhead environments, where frequent levels of entanglement occur on most dives. Add the complexity of limited visibility; add the complexity of diving deeper than 60ft within kelp forests; add the complexity of cold-water drysuit/wetsuit management; add the activity of underwater photography, and any lack of basic or specialized diving skills quickly cascade task overloading/mistakes.

An inexperienced kelp diver is anyone who does not regularly dive kelp in various seasons, places, surge and currents. You can have hundreds of dives and all kind-of title, but you are still inexperienced as to kelp and its insidious dangers.

Go slow; don't get lost; don't get tangled; don't get STUCK.

Fog + kelp canopy + murk/bloom + depth + time of day = DARK.

Recommendations for inexperienced kelp divers :

(Details of do's and don't's are explained after the list and referenced by numbers)



GENERAL Kelp Diving Tips :

Breaking kelp

17. Break kelp stipes like you were trying to break a pencil, bending each stipe into a tight U shape, tighter and tighter until it breaks. Don't try to "stretch" it like a rubber band; lengthwise kelp is just as elastic as a rubber - you can't break it by trying to stretch the stipe apart. Note that thick late summer kelp that has been floating on the surface, subjected to sun and drying, can be near leather like, and won't hand break. Scissors or knife may be needed to cut tough surface kelp.

Holding kelp to maintain safety-stop depth

IMHO, holding kelp at the 15ft safety-stop depth is reasonable. But kelp is living and so are the critters which symbios with it. Also note that holding multi-braded stipes of kelp at 15ft ineviitably seems to stretch the entire kelp plant with you on it surfaceward into less than 15ft. If your depth is well controlled, perhaps, just using the fronds/pneumatocysts as reference without touching the plant is best. But if its a choice between a rapid ascent in the last 15ft of surface water or the unfortunate crushing of critters/stuff adhering to the "stalk", most I speculate will feel it's reasonable to tightly hold the kelp during safety-stops.

Kelp Diving Tips from BOATS :

On many California liveaboard multi-day dive trips, each day begins with a deep challenging morning dive. Plan accordingly if you are inexperienced kelp divers.

1. and 26. When surface swimming near kelp, keep your regulator in your hand. This way if you get seriously tangled you can get air if you need it.

Avoid swimming through kelp on the surface. Swim beneath the kelpforest's "surface canopy".

In thick kelp, the surface is NOT your friend.  In thick kelp, sometimes, even the bottom is not your friend (bazillion new 1-2ft kelp plants everywhere off the bottom waiting to catch your fins, lights, slates, straps, rigs (camera/tanks).

4. When diving kelp, your buddy is your untangle savior. He truly needs to be your buddy, not a 'same ocean' buddy, not prone to wandering off or forgetting to frequently look for hitchhiking kelp or for your absence.  Optimally, swim parallel (no more than 5-7ft apart) so each can quickly/easily look to the side and quickly/easily find the other.  More than a 7ft separation or swimming tandem for very long is a mistake IMHO for the uninitiated kelp diver.

5. Compass navigation is a MUST.  Not just knowledgeable; but competent - experienced.  Topside, before each dive, survey the surface for subsurface geologic indicators: if kelp exists, some kind of a rock bottom is related to it; if 'holes' in the kelp exist, then probably sand patches are there; if washrocks or jutting rocks are in the direction of your dive, note them. Note general directions: for example shore is 180degrees, the open ocean 0/360degrees, our target at 270degrees. Topside, note the angle of the kelp subsurface. Note the compass direction of any current. Note whether or not the wind has been variable. Topside, make a mental map of the area and/or sketch it on your dive slate. Plan you depth and time. The old 1/3out, 1/3back, 1/3inreserve is inadequate for kelp diving. For inexperienced kelp divers, IMHO, after subtracting 500psi from your tank's working pressure, optimally plan 1/2out&back and leave 1/2 in reserve. In other words, the 1/2 in reserve would mean being back out of the kelp when your 3000psi aluminum tank pressure reads 1800psi; or if your boat were moored in the middle of kelp, being back under the boat by the time your psi was 1800.

The kelp stipes just ahead look quite similar to the stipes just beyond as look quite similar to the ones aside and look exactly like those behind. Don't get lost. The kelp forest also has a way of 'hiding' topographic geologic boulders, walls, ridge outlines so compass navigation must be excellent.

6. and 7. Off the deck of a dive boat, DO NOT jump into a mess of kelp. Wait for the swing of the boat to be moving AWAY from a hole the boat hull creates in the kelp; then before the kelp again can surround, engulf, entangle and close upon itself, jump in, feet first, feet together, descend to 10-15ft. AND WAIT for your buddy.  He should be very ready and immediately enter after you and be very near as you recover, recheck equipment, reorient, and untangle (visa versa him). This violates a major, prudent entry procedure wisely taught by all training agencies: in other words - "Before water entry inflate your BC half-way, then giant stride, before submerging check equipment & buddy on surface, activate your computer, observe for unacceptable air leaks, before submerging take 4+ deep breaths off your regulator (air on?), record current time(redundancy)& psi readings(you do have air, right? you didn't leave it off, right? the deck guy, didn't accidentally turn off your air, right?), now purge BC and slowly submerge."

Some experienced divers will punch down to a 10ft depth right off the deck, hover subsurface while rechecking, eliminating issues. This is NOT according to text book training; there are important safeguards thought into the surface float/slow descent procedure taught by all training agencies. As an inexperienced kelp diver, if someone suggests to you using the "punch to depth" technique, I'd kindly thank them, explain you'd have to think through the change, and then don't do it/nor learn this bad habit. Using it adds more risk to the kelp diving experience. Sometimes it's just about the only way to enter water in very thick kelp. This 'ain't' for novices; and you aren't going to be doing it with a camera. To minimized impact shock, California dive boats will always tether your camera and slowly unreel it down as you float waiting for it on the surface.

It is a mistake to jump into water as the boat is swinging towards/into what appears to be a kelp-free opening. The boat rapidly covers these openings, giving you only seconds to not only contend with kelp entanglement but also avoid the boat hull sweeping over the top of you as well.  If you are lucky, the boat's mega ton hull won't crush your skull like an egg shell.  If you're lucky, you'll only have your wetsuit torn up as you're drug across the barnacles on the bottom of its hull.  Rip a hole in a dry suit under these stressful errors and you have a true emergency.  Did I mention to duck as the propellers and drive shafts pass by?  And did the kelp wrap around and pull your regulator out of your mouth during all of this, did it?

10. As an inexperienced kelp diver, it's probably best not to deep-dive kelp. Dive bottoms shallower than 50fsw; and don't plan dives deeper than 60fsw - especially if you are photographing or hunting where 'buckfever' can timenarc the best. Below the kelp canopy isn't the place to discover you have not learned the habit of watching NDL time before air before goal and discover yourself "accidentally" going Deco. DON'T GO DECO!   DON'T GO DECO!   DON'T GO DECO! in the middle of a kelpbed!

11. As an inexperienced kelp diver, stay on the periphery edge of large kelp beds.  Unless you frequently dive kelp, I recommend you don't penetrate the forest any deeper than you can see out. At least not initially.  If you do decide to penetrate deeply, agree before the dive, that you will swim a simple course straight in and a 180 degree reciprocal course back out.

13. Reboarding the boat may be the most challenging ordeal of all.  Hopefully though, everything is wonderful, a stern anchor as well as the bow anchor are set, and the stern swimstep will have clear calm surface water all around. You'll unclip and hand up your camera first; then you'll do a little bob-down then kick-up onto the swimstep on all fours; the crew will remove you fins; and you will scurry up the ladder to the dive deck; turn around and receive your fins which the crew will hand up to you; then off to your spot to remove gear and post-dive chat.

Simple right?  Unfortunately, odds are that on at least one dive the swimstep will be covered in kelp; and/or the surrounding surface full of kelp; and/or the swimstep wildly bouncing up and down in a heavy swell like a wild-sieve generating copious vision-obscuring bubbles and throwing kelp to and fro (the swimstep now literally is a guillotine; can lop off body parts). When the wind is strong and/or the boat is anchored in a massive kelpbed, many times the captain will drop only the bow anchor - he won't put down a stern anchor too. With only a bow anchor down, your dive boat will wander in wide pendular swings across the kelp bed. Choosing to place only a single anchor is more for the convenience of the crew than for its divers(if an anchor gets stuck and the crew has to go subsurface to free it, the crew doesn't like fighting thick kelp any more than you like reboarding through it). Under these conditions, the reboard is significantly more challenging. A timing and finesse act. Coolheadedness, calmness, guts, thinking, and planned reserve air is mandatory. Worst case scenario is that you are forced to stay submerged at 10-15ft, planning where the stern of the boat will swing through because you''ve recently seen it swing by once or twice before (thereby clearing a temporary hole in the kelp), waiting patiently with your buddy (and any other divers needing to reboard); when the wind blows the boat past again, you start exhaling, swimming like mad following the leading edge of the swimstep waiting for a hole to reappear, punch up through when it does open, and vigorously kick up onto the swimstep like a breaching whale (camera and all) crawling for the nearest ladder (fins still on); and hopefully the crew will simultaneously be removing them and tossing them far up onto the deck. If kelp has tangled on you anywhere, you'll be pulled back into the ocean - usually much worse off. Tangled miserably. Duel wideangle ultralight strobearms, big cameras, dangling junk really suck right about now. Kelp is NOT a friend of reboarding NOR of cameras.

Add current to these conditions - and need I say more?

On the subject of kelp and currents, as viewed from topside, if kelp that was once visible on the surface seems to have disappeared - a current is running. Submerged, if the kelp isn't ventricle, if it is listing/leaning - a current is running.  If kelp is 10-20 degrees off vertical, then you probably can swim against the current. If kelp is 45 degrees off ventricle, then you probably won't be able to swim against the current for very long. If kelp is near flat on the bottom, you will already know you are in deep trouble and experiencing a monster current.(See also Sheckler1) Yes, I have seen it this bad; the kelp went from 45 degrees off vertical to near flat in less than ten minutes. The good news though was my buddy and I managed back to the anchor line, our bodies flagged outstretched up the anchor line, then at approx. 30ft depth we experienced a fantastic wondrous "Salp"chain 'storm' in that raging current. Lemon into lemonade. Anxiety and fear evaporated as we were treated to awe and wonder.

When diving kelp, at all times, it is imperative you know the location and distance of your boat relative to your air supply. You may have to surface within the kelp bed to take a compass bearing on the boat. If you decide to surface within a kelpbed forest, choose a spot where the kelp canopy is not so thick. Submerged this looks like where the 'trunks' are less dense; or a patch of sand exists. Looking up from subsurface, these less dense canopy areas will have light shining through or blue sky visible. 'Holes' will open more frequently there. Slowly ascend. You should orient yourself to the direction you wish to view on the surface before reaching canopy depth. Your bubbles most likely will be clearing a 'hole' for you; if they aren't, consider whether or not the kelp here is too thick to surface. Some divers will remove their regulator and free-flow purge their regulators at the surface in attempt to open larger 'holes'. IMHO, this just wastes air and potentially makes you hold your breath while ascending. When you part the surface (you may use your hands & arms), don't rotate, don't twist around; maybe turn only your head sideways without rotating your body. If you're facing the wrong direction, resubmerge below the canopy, select a new direction for view above, then bob-up again without twisting/rotating your body. Take your compass bearing; also note where any other potential static 'holes' between the boat and you might be; on your swim back be looking for those 'holy' landmarks below. As you part the surface, if you can feel that you are 'lifting' kelp atop you and your rig, don't fight it; immediately slowly redescend without twisting as just described, continuing downward, looking surfaceward and remove the offending kelp; usually it frees itself and floats back to the surface without your intervention anyway; here your buddy whose been waiting just below the canopy can REALLY be a big help. He'll be experienced enough to be waiting just below the canopy, expecting you to be dragging down kelp with your redescent. Don't twist and thrash about; don't get stuck; don't get stuck; and don't get STUCK.

As an inexperienced kelp diver, if the captain moors your boat in the middle of a large kelpbed - for example with several hundred yards of kelp in front, behind, and to either side with no static continuously open sand patch areas obvious from the deck - consider not doing this dive.  Doing a dive from a boat anchored on the edge of such a bed is OK for inexperienced kelp divers

18. A thick lush kelpforest can be quite DARK down there under a marine fog, under the canopy, under planktonic bloom, at depth - especially in the early morning or late afternoon. High-intensity dive lights are very good, but they add entanglement issues, especially while on the surface reboarding; probably is best to be able to tuck a light underneath your BC cumberbun or pocket it; better than clipping it off and letting it "hang" upon reboard - nearly a guaranteed tangle and you being involuntarially pulled off the stern swimstep back into the sea. Long, wide camera strobe arms are the worst. Strobe arms will find every piece of kelp in the ocean - just gotta love the hassles which come with advanced photography.

21. and 32. The safety skiff is usually an inflatable with at outboard engine.  An inflatable can't negotiate kelp either. The crew can't use it to come get you or save you. Under extreme circumstances, the safety diver may attempt a swim rescue. Don't count on it though, unless you are face down in the water and not breathing. Only you can get you out of kelp. On the surface, stuck in the middle of kelp is not a good place to be. It's Kelp Crawl Time. If the captain doesn't explain this procedure during pre-dive orientation, BE SURE to have he or the safety diver fully explain the maneuver.

Also tell the captain that you have come 2,000 miles to dive kelp and that you have no experience diving kelp. Disclose your total lifetime dives, your freshwater/saltwater ratio, your coldwater ocean total&ratio. Let him know you intend to carry a camera.  Make sure all people in your party do likewise.

Go slow; don't get lost; don't get tangled; don't get STUCK.

Kelp Diving Tips from SHORE :

Shore diving in kelp: use a landmark outside of kelpbed as homebase; swim 'spokes' straight in/back out. From landmark, navigate reciprocal course back to shore.

Go slow; don't get lost; don't get tangled; don't get STUCK.

Kelp Diving Tips : northern vs southern California

Northern California: BullKelp(Nereocystis luetkaena) predominates in northern California. GiantKelp, FeatherboaKelp, and PalmKelp also are sparsely here. BullKelp bed size is smaller than the expansive GiantKelp beds in southern California. On the surface, BullKelp is much easier to swim through even in a thick bed - on the surface. A surface swim through BullKelp still is a slow endeavor though. Frond blades are much thicker and longer on BullKelp; and "elephant tail" sized stalks(stipes) are easy to part and are too big to tangle much equipment.  But ...

... subsurface new plants are everywhere. New plants are thick. Because BullKelp canopies let through considerably more sunlight than GiantKelp, new BullKelp plants off the bottom are very dense, only six to eight inches apart; the stalks(stipes) are thinner diametered than young GiantKelp stipes; the new plants are ALL stipe until they get quite near the surface, whereas GiantKelp grows fronds throughout the vertical water column. This density of new plant growth within BullKelp fields, stipe thinness, and string-like-things all the way to the surface, IMHO, make diving through BullKelp fields extremely frustrating and annoying. Headway is extremely slow. Those stringy plants catch and wrap and tangle around everything; sometimes I feel like they could even tangle a ball. Surface conditions in northern California are much rougher than in southern California. Northern California has larger swell, worse surge, more wind, less periodicity between swells, and more force. Therefore underwater surge has horizontal "swings" easy 5ft on average and easy 3ft vertical on average. Trying to swim through the young subsurface BullKelp with this extreme surge - you spend your dive doing nothing but staying in place perpetually untangling kelp; you can't even come close to untangling before the surge swing whips more entangling plants over something else. Very frustrating. Best to surface swim over the top of the adult plants or better yet completely avoid the entire bed.

Kelp Diving MAGIC :

Did I mention the seals? Garibaldi? Blacksmith? Kelpbass? Sheepshead? Rockfish? Sculpins? Cabazon? The schools of anchovies; sardines; mackerel? Barracuda? Torpedorays? Batrays? Horned sharks? Angel sharks? Maybe a Blue shark? Monster Giant Black Sea Bass? Senoritas? Blackeyed&Bluebanded gobies? California Moray Eels? Lobsters, shrimp, the occasional abalone? Ever feed an abalone kelp?(they have eyes and feet and willingly reach up and take kelp from you). Norris, & Ringtop, & Turbinate snails? seals? SpanishShawl, Festiva, Hermissenda, Hilton nudibranchs? Lightbulb tunicates? seals? Bazillion different invertebrates: anemones, sponges, starfish, urchins, gorgonians, mollusks, octopi, worms, jellies? seals?

The California kelp forests are a sublime, enchanting, wondrous experience. Kelp forests are well worth learning the skills to safely enjoy them.

- ©2005Aug Scott & Nancy.Barnett (aka: aviddivers)