Wildlife of the Week!

© Andrew Lees/ Five Star Whale Watching. A Harbour seal pokes its nose to catch a breath within a dense kelp bed.

This week we have chosen to do something a little different for our Wildlife of the Week! Instead of picking an animal, we have chosen a habitat that hosts and supports a variety of animals in the Salish Sea. There are lots of different habitats in the Salish Sea, can you name a few? The photo above depicts the habitat we have chosen today. Although the building blocks of a Kelp Forest are made of algae, the animals that dwell in and use these habitats are very important themselves to the health and productivity of the entire Salish Sea. Algae (like kelp) and other plants in the ocean (e.g. microscopic phytoplankton) help give the Earth the oxygen it needs to survive, all over the ocean. What sort of wildlife lives in and utilizes a Kelp Forest? Read on below!

P.S. Can you spot the hidden creature taking a quick breath in this Kelp Forest?

Kelp Forests are an integral part of many marine ecosystems. A major component of the Salish Sea’s kelp biomass is a macro-seaweed known as “Bull Kelp” (Nereocystis sp.). This plant is a large type of brown seaweed and is completely hollow inside. Bull Kelp, as with other kelps, can be compared in a way to plants. Kelp has a root-like anchor system (holdfast), stem (stipe) and leaves (fronds). All of the above allow the kelp to stay put in place, extend into the water column and receive sunlight to conduct photosynthesis- just as a tree would. In order to photosynthesize, Kelp Forests require relatively clear water to collect sunlight. 

To cope with the watery medium, kelp has an extra addition in the form of gas-filled sacs (floats) that help the algae reach upwards. Bull Kelp is remarkable in that it may anchor as deep at 90 feet and grow several inches a day. Bull Kelp, which majorly forms the Kelp Forests in the Salish Sea, is easily recognizable in these waters. This type of kelp is dark green to brown, with its fronds a dark brown/ orange hue. The density and shadowing of a Kelp Forest assists many animals hiding within the fronds and stipes. 

There is another form of kelp that looks similar to Bull Kelp, known as Giant Kelp. The latter is not typically as common in North Pacific regions, and tends to be found in more southerly waters. Bull Kelp can be found as far as Alaska to as south as California on the West Coast. They prefer cool to temperate or warm waters that contain high nutrient concentrations (e.g. like near upwelling zones). Kelp forests are coastal and tend to be more temperate than other ecosystems such as coral reefs. Kelp Forests can be spotted from the surface, as their fronds and stipes linger at the uppermost water columns. 

Storms, predators, seasonal changes and other conditions in the ocean may alter the location and presence of Kelp Forests, i.e. they are not always permanent systems. Predators such as Sea Urchins play a crucial role in controlling Kelp Forest health. When there is abundance of Sea Urchins, Kelp Forests may dwindle and actually disappear, therefore balanced urchin populations are crucial to the survival of Kelp Forests. The growth of Kelp Forests also has a role in how many, and what, species are present within them. 

Kelp Forests are integral for ecology of local wildlife, and host a number of different creatures at times such as otters, Rockfish, Giant Pacific Octopus, invertebrates, Sea Urchins, Harbour Seals, Sea Lions and whales. Their flexible stipes and fronds have a role in slowing currents (especially during storms) so they often are used as a refuge for many creatures such as marine mammals. Kelp Forests also provide dense cover for animals to escape predators.

The protected and productive nature of the Kelp Forest works as a nursery for baby fish, and thus contributes to the survival of many food webs. As mentioned, many animals seek out the protection of these unique habitats, which can draw predators in nonetheless. Killer Whales (orcas) and sharks have been known to search and utilize these forests in an attempt to locate hidden prey. The Sea Otter plays a crucial role in the maintenance of these systems, as they feed on Sea Urchins. Without a healthy community of Sea Otters, Kelp Forests can effectively disappear if urchin populations are not kept in check by these predators. It is not unusual to spot a Sea Otter as they rest, nap, eat, or groom themselves while they float on the top of a Kelp Forest; the anchored algae (that they may wrap themselves in) provides a way to remain in place even with heavy current. Many seabirds may perch on floating kelp and hunt within these habitats. 

Kelp Forests, and therefore the wildlife they support, are at risk from many anthropogenic activities. Pollution and harmful fishing practices pose great risks to the health of these integral ecosystems. Responsible, experienced and safe diving near Kelp Forests can be incredible opportunities to witness the immense diversity lurking just below the surface in these watery jungles. With so many Salish Sea species living in and depending on these forests, it is crucial to keep them healthy and functioning for times to come. 

To test your Kelp Forest knowledge, try out some trivia below! 

  1. True or False? Kelp is a plant, just like a terrestrial tree. (ANS: False. Kelp is actually an algae, and not an animal or plant). 
  2. True or False? Kelp Forests occur only with Bull Kelp. (ANS: False). 
  3. Kelp Forests may be found in oceans _____ (on the West Coast only, worldwide, in Polar regions only, on the East Coast only). (ANS: Worldwide). 

BONUS CHALLENGE: 

The absence of a Kelp Forest after uncontrolled urchin feeding is called….

Urchin barren.

Article By: Alexa D./ Five Star Whale Watching. 

To learn more, visit our References! 

  1.  “Kelp Forests- A Description.” NOAA: National Marine Sanctuaries. Department of Commerce. https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/visit/ecosystems/kelpdesc.html
  2. “Kelp Forest.” Marine Science and Ecosystems. OCEANA. https://oceana.org/marine-life/marine-science-and-ecosystems/kelp-forest#:~:text=%20%20%201%20Kelp%20are%20not%20plants%2C,moving%20in%20herds.%20Sea%20otters%20play…%20More%20

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