Ask any southern California diver why they don their thick wetsuits and drysuits and “brave” the temperate waters along our coast, and the answers will most likely be similar. The abundance of amazing shore dives and a playground of islands relatively close to the mainland have a common theme that attracts underwater explorers from around the world: kelp. Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) is an abundant algae which not only serves as food and shelter for countless critters, it’s also intertwined in our everyday lives. If you brushed your teeth today, chances are very good that you consumed kelp. Besides the aforementioned peppermint paste, kelp is used as a binding agent (e.g. algin) in several common items like ice cream and make-up. Hooray for kelp!
For underwater photographers, kelp forests present both inspiration and challenges. The forests are filled with life from the holdfasts to the canopy and everywhere in between. Their blades and stipes sway with the surge and sunlight casts dancing light onto the sea floor. Entire dives could be spent simply taking in this beauty. It can be difficult, however, to do justice for such stunning scenes with a camera. When shooting wide-angle, the dynamic range of the kelp forests will push your skills and your camera’s capabilities to the limit. Bright natural light streaming through the canopy contrasted by deep, rich shadows make creating a single, well-balanced frame a challenge. Couple that with the light-absorbing algae, and your strobes will be put to the test as well. It is very satisfying, however, when it all comes together. Those same light-absorbing properties of giant kelp can be make it an ideal backdrop for macro and super macro images. The kelp effortlessly relinquishes the spotlight to the subject, whether it’s a nudibranch, amphipod, or other colorful critter. So the next time you’re in the kelp forest be sure to inspect the blades on your way up to (and during) your safety stop. Keep that camera powered on because you never know what you’ll find!
I owe much of my inspiration to photograph the natural history of our underwater coastline to giant kelp and its relatives. Highlighting (and sharing) the gorgeous critters that rely so heavily on the algae for their existence helps raise awareness of the beauty the lies just beneath the surface and so close to millions of people. It’s my goal that by raising awareness, more people will be willing to work hard to protect and preserve our natural world.
See more of Michael’s work at Sea in Focus or with his company Immersed Imaging, the company he runs with Todd Winner.