Kelp is on the way


Laguna Beach’s annual Kelpfest was born out of frustration.

Every time Nancy Caruso heard people grouse about kelp washing up on local beaches, she’d want to “bang her head against a wall.” To her, that was akin to planting trees only to gripe when they shed leaves.

The Garden Grove resident — who founded Get Inspired Inc., a nonprofit specializing in environmental education and conservation programs — was discussing what she deemed an absurd situation with her friend when inspiration struck.

They decided to create a festival whose sole purpose would be to generate awareness about kelp, a type of seaweed that grows in underwater forests and plays a critical role in overall marine health.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Caruso, who has spent a decade working to restore kelp to the ocean waters off Laguna and Newport Beach. “I realized that I’d missed some people in the education process. If they knew how important kelp was, they wouldn’t complain about its presence.”

Now in its fifth year, Kelpfest will return to Main Beach from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 26. Caruso, 41, makes it known that this is not a money-making endeavor — she and other participants only want to foster an appreciation for kelp.

Guests will be able to learn about kelp, purchase kelp-themed items and interact with the artists, including jeweler Emilio Vega and painters Susan MacLeod and Erik Wong. Food, arts and crafts, face-painting and games will be available. Bands including Birdsong and the Eco-Wonders and the Island Bazaar’s Ukulele Club will provide live entertainment.

“Most people are not scuba divers, so it’s difficult to convey the beauty of kelp to those who have not been underwater,” Caruso said. “We have to convey their importance very quickly to someone just walking by on the beach. We do that with a lot of art, and Laguna is very good at art.”

Photographer Josie Iselin, who uses a flatbed scanner and computer to create portraits of specimens from the natural world, will help in that regard.

Iselin, who built her first series around dryer lint, recalled a trip to Duxbury Reef in Marin County during which she found scraps of seaweed. On first glance, her find seemed dull, but upon holding it up the sky, she realized it was magenta with interesting details.

The photographer, 52, has written and designed seven books combining art and science, the latest being “An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed.” She stumbled across a mention of the upcoming Kelpfest while Googling terms related to marinology. Although based in San Francisco, Iselin contacted Caruso, keen to contribute.

“I felt that we were kindred spirits, coming at the same issue from different angles, and that is making people aware that seaweed, algae and kelp are as crucial to the health of oceans as are fish, whales, seals and others,” said Iselin, who will sell copies of her book in Laguna Beach. “It’s like seaweed are being able to say, ‘Hey, I’m important too!’”

According to Louise Thornton, chairwoman of the Laguna Ocean Foundation, a sponsor of Kelpfest since its inception, the large seaweeds belonging to the brown algae family flourish in shallow nutrient-rich waters. Kelp is known for its high growth rate — several feet a day, eventually reaching a height of 100 to 250 feet — and is utilized in the food, medical, dental and renewable energy industries.

“Kelpfest celebrates the giant kelp forests and their return to Orange County after being mostly gone for more than 25 years,” Thornton said. “The restoration efforts of thousands of people have restored this precious habitat for the more than 800 species that rely on them.”

Caruso said kelp is known as a keystone species, without which no animals or fish can survive underwater. It’s the same as having a forest without any trees, she said. But overfishing, runoff and El Niño conditions — an ocean-warming pattern that alters weather — decimated kelp in Southern California.

She responded by working with middle school children across Orange and Los Angeles counties to grow kelp and raise white sea bass in their science classes, and also recruited and trained nearly 250 divers to clear the “fields” of sea urchins and plant baby kelp.

“We don’t usually see ecosystems collapse,” Caruso said. “It takes a lot of pressure for that to happen, and the fact that it did means we really screwed up.”

A beach cleanup is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. April 26, followed by a “earth hug” at noon. The event concludes with a drum circle.

Thornton said the Laguna Ocean Foundation will also offer tidepool tours of the Heisler Park intertidal zone.

“One day, I’d love to see Forest Avenue become Kelp Forest Avenue,” Caruso said. “I’d like to see the Kelpfest extend all the way down Forest and even a parade with people dressed in kelp costumes.”

If You Go

What: Kelpfest 2014

Where: Main Beach, 107 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 26

Cost: Free