KelpFest returns, provides ocean literacy in Laguna Beach

A family has fun discussing shark jaws with a team member at the Shark Shack on Saturday at KelpFest in Laguna Beach.
(Spencer Grant)

As summer approaches and society has resumed many of its usual activities following the coronavirus pandemic, residents and visitors have returned to the surf and sand in Laguna Beach.

The annual KelpFest also made its long-awaited return — after the pandemic-induced hiatus — again with the mission to educate the public on local coastal ecosystems and the importance of the ocean.

Laguna Ocean Foundation and partnering organizations teamed up to provide elements of ocean literacy and encourage community members to get involved, as KelpFest took place at the cobblestone area of Main Beach on Saturday.

Anne Girtz and Mike Beanan set up a net and a papier-mache shark at the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition stand.
(Spencer Grant)

“It’s really just about raising awareness,” Wendy Berube, the education and outreach coordinator for the foundation, said of the event. “People don’t think about kelp every day. Unless you happen to be a diver or something, and you’re familiar with what a really magical place a kelp forest is, people don’t realize that they eat it every day, or at least put it in their mouth, because it’s used in so many products.

“Also, it’s such an important habitat for the fisheries in our area because…it’s like a nursery for a lot of the commercially imported fish and lobsters. People don’t realize that it really has a huge effect on the ocean as a whole and that it plays such a huge part in carbon sequestration, because a kelp forest can absorb much more carbon than a regular, on-land forest.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center, O.C. Habitats, the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, SoCal Sea Turtles, Ocean Defenders Alliance, One World One Ocean, the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, and Laguna Canyon Foundation were also among the groups looking to draw interest from passersby.

A life-size shark banner decorates the Shark Lab tent.
(Spencer Grant)

O.C. Habitats, established in 2017, had been scheduled to make its debut at KelpFest in 2020, but the group finally got a chance to join in the collaborative festivities last week. Stacey Chartier-Grable, the founder and executive director of O.C. Habitats, said the group has focused on the protection and restoration of the county’s habitats, including wetlands, coastal, intertidal and marine.

“The marine habitat is one of our habitats, so we definitely educate about that,” Chartier-Grable said. “We educate about just the habitat, in general, but also pollution, climate change, all the things that impact it, and how to protect it.”

Attendees of KelpFest had the opportunity to pick up educational reading materials, get up close and personal with glass-encased shark eyes and jaws, and even have their pictures taken with mermaids.

Those options resonate with the original spirit of the festival, which was co-founded by Nancy Caruso and Mike Beanan in 2010. By that time, Caruso had already been working on kelp forest restoration along the Southern California coastline for nearly a decade.

Orange County Mermaids Artemesia and Avalon chat with a visitor at KelpFest in Laguna Beach on Saturday.
(Spencer Grant)

“Every year, we would try to outdo ourselves from the last year, try to make it very artsy, because people don’t necessarily dive,” said Caruso, who handed the reins of the festival over to Laguna Ocean Foundation in 2016. “They can’t relate to the seaweed in the ocean, but they can relate to it through art and through dance and through music and poetry and food, so we would always try to have those different avenues by which people can relate to it.”

Caruso runs a nonprofit organization called Get Inspired, and she has galvanized others to take ownership of protecting the ocean. She enlisted the help of approximately 5,000 students from 32 Orange County schools to grow kelp in their classrooms, and then a team of volunteer divers planted and monitored the kelp, which she is happy to say has rebounded following warmer water temperatures in recent years.

“I’m just one person,” Caruso said. “I’m the only person in Get Inspired that’s an employee but look at what we did by involving the community. We restored an ecosystem that’s home to over 800 different species because we all worked together for a common goal. That’s the point is that it just takes one person, and the chain of events that you can create by just one person being passionate about something is what the world needs. It’s the only thing that actually does create change.”

Magnifying glass in hand, a young KelpFest attendee studies jaws at the Shark Shack.
(Spencer Grant)

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