MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif. (KION-TV)-- After a round of early-morning April showers, the sky was beginning to clear at the Monterey Wharf while a group of divers boarded the Beachwaver II for a special mission.
An avid scuba diver, Keith Rootsaert is the executive director of the Giant Giant Kelp Restoration Project (G2KR). This three-year initiative hopes to repair the effects of environmental stressors on local kelp forests.
"We're having massive kelp deforestation in Monterey, and the usual kelp forests that is usually here and is extensive, is gone now," explained Rootsaert.
Rootsaert explained that many stressors affect the declining kelp population, but sea urchins are one of the most prominent. These spikey organisms feed on the kelp and have been instrumental in deforestation seen in recent years.
In the words of Rootsaert, "Our project here is to go down there and cull the urchins so that the kelp can survive."
"Culling" refers to a process used to inhibit the urchins from further damaging the kelp. A welding-style hammer is used to break open the urchin, exposing its inner organs (called "gonads"), which are consumed by nearby fish and organisms.
"All the little fish come around, and they eat whatever remains. The other urchins eat it too… No harm, no foul," said Rootsaert.
The culling is done by scuba divers who have taken a kelp restoration diving course curated by G2KR in partnership with Bamboo Reef - a scuba shop out of Monterey. Roosaert explained that the goal was to get the community involved in this environmental issue - a process he calls "citizen science."
"I like to call it an intro to scientific diving course," added kelp restoration diving instructor Tyler McKinney. "You don't need a marine biology background... You just need to be a diver and have an interest in preserving our kelp forests."
As it turns out, many local divers share this particular interest. Bamboo Reef began offering kelp restoration diving courses in April of 2021.
As of April 2022, over 100 divers have been certified. The kelp restoration diving course is a deep dive into the marine biology of kelp, urchins, and our local marine environment - both literally and figuratively.
Before they can put on a wetsuit, students must complete a detailed online learning course along with an exam. After doing this, they can take the literal dive at Tanker's Reef.
Among those who received the certification last year is Dane Kohler, a Santa Cruz native. Having begun diving at the age of 12, he has seen the changes in the underwater ecosystem firsthand. "This is my backyard," said Kohler. "I grew up diving here. So I think this is part of my community service - to kind of make sure that other people can enjoy it like I did. And it's been noticeable watching the kelp kind of recede in just the last ten years or so."
Rootsaert agreed, "As the scuba divers, we're the first to see it go away. And we're the ones that are here and that can do something about it."
While divers certainly have a unique view of the changes in the underwater environment, specific changes can be observed from the surface, and at times, even from the shoreline.
For example, one of the most extensive local kelp forests is located near Otter Cove, right off of the coast of Lover's Point in Pacific Grove. It can still be seen from shore, but it is substantially smaller than it once was.
Due to the significant deforestation in this area, it would be ideal for G2KR to focus its efforts here. However, there are certain roadblocks.
"We're not allowed to go in there because the preponderance of state policy is that those areas are to remain undisturbed," Rootsaert said.
He explained that this means that the urchins within that area cannot be culled. To be granted permission to cull the urchins off of the coast of Lover's Point, G2KR must prove the efficacy of the divers' work. While this is something that the group is working towards, they currently possess a license to cull urchins at a site next door in Monterey Bay.
This area, called Tanker's Reef, has also experienced significant kelp deforestation. Fortunately, the kelp restoration efforts within the Monterey Bay site have been highly effective.
"So originally, when we came here, they measured it at being seven urchins per square meter," said Rootsaert. "And then, in the course of five months working in this area, we reduced it down to 1.07 urchins per square meter."
Considering that the urchin populations are at around 500 times above average, this statistic indicates the incredible progress being made.
But the positive impacts of kelp restoration don't stop with simply the kelp forests. Many marine species rely on kelp for food and shelter, including one of Monterey Bay's most famous mascots - the sea otter.
Sea otters float atop large kelp clusters, shielding them from predators such as sharks. Because sharks attack from below, the kelp acts as a camouflage.
While kelp restoration divers are hard at work below the surface, they also have their fair share of fun on the job. McKinney shared that he gets the most joy out of seeing reactions of awe from his student divers when they first take the plunge.
"It's really cool how you can see that look on their face - even through a scuba mask - eyes wide," he said. This feeling of wonder never seems to fade - even for more seasoned divers like Kohler. "It's a completely different world down there," said the diver of over 24 years. "That's one of the beauties of this specific location in the globe is we have one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet."
A year remains in G2KR's three-year project, but there is still plenty of work to be done and amazing marine life to be seen. If you are interested in joining Bamboo Reef and G2KR in making both a splash and a change, you can visit either of their websites.
Giant Giant Kelp Restoration Project (G2KR)