Out of the Blue: ‘Kelp Lady’ inspires Laguna Beach


The estimable Jane Goodall was the Rose Parade grand marshal this past year. When speaking about our ability to save the planet, she said, “A million people doing the right thing are a good start.” I mention this because in my last column I wrote of the need for the divine feminine to save the planet. This week I submit to you, my readers, proof.

A few years back, when I first heard of a woman called the Kelp Lady, I couldn’t help but imagine a dowdy, eccentric widow, with stringy, unkempt hair swept around her torso. The kind that talks to one in particular.

My first encounter with the Kelp Lady was at her first annual Kelp Fest at Main Beach. I was curious about this little festival with the quirky name. Maybe I’d find patchouli, incense, some tie-dyed clothes and a “free hug” booth. Instead I met Nancy Caruso, and I have been inspired and awed by the Kelp Lady ever since. Nancy can not only galvanize an army, she can also draw up the battle plan, identify the obstacles and call the audiles. And thus Kelp Fest was born four years ago, Laguna’s little eco festival that does!


Nancy is a marine biologist and teacher who lives in Garden Grove with her quietly brilliant husband Tom. Tom understands the power of a woman to do great work in the world. The proverbial “guy behind the girl.” Which is only possible because he is 100% actualized, and they are 100% equals. They both have a passion for the same things, like diving, skiing, hiking, and retracing the Lewis & Clark expedition — which they did one summer across America by boat — just as her granddad had.

Nancy’s brilliance is the fortitude to believe that a small group of dedicated volunteers can completely restore the habitat in our coastal waters by replenishing the kelp, followed by white sea bass and abalone. Laguna has been a great beneficiary of her largesse. Not because we as a people possess some special charm. But because Heisler Park once had the densest kelp forest in Orange County.

So Nancy trained over 250 volunteer divers in her 10-year restoration effort known as, wait for it, The Kelp Project. Her grant-funded program (yes, she writes her own) began in classrooms all over Orange County, where students harvested thousands of baby kelp in their science classes. Her volunteer divers would then plant them one by one, led of course, by Nancy herself. But first, a more daunting task. They had to remove and displace the thousands of sea urchins to distant waters, as they are the primary predators of kelp. This alone took three dives a week for two years. Don’t try that at home.

Did it work? Have you looked out your window? We are basking in golden, lustrous kelp, what Nancy calls our “underwater rain forest” for its bio diversity, and our fisheries are robust. Some skeptics have suggested the resurgence was due to natural factors such as colder waters, some of which is true. But Nancy planted in areas known as urchin barrens that were completely devoid of any habitat save those prickly little devils. Yet back the kelp came. That’s good science.

As part of the curriculum, Nancy takes her students out to see the kelp each year — many of them from low-income neighborhoods who have never even been on the water. To witness them jumping from their boats and snorkeling into the kelp beds for the first time, giddy with excitement, is a moment I think most educators would treasure. Nancy created the perfect marriage of education and action, students and volunteers.

The 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is mostly an indictment of our school system and the failed promise of our teachers. But somewhere in the middle of the film, the star and would-be reformer Geoffrey Canada watches a teacher at work through a window. His voiceover ruminates about what an amazing experience it is to witness a great teacher at work. For those of us lucky enough to have had even one, we know what he means. That’s Nancy to me.

In countless prep meetings for Kelp Fest — there are many and that’s why it’s so good — she treats everyone as equals, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Her secret? Enthusiasm. She’s cool, funny, engaging and just so full of knowledge. She gets everyone involved, and listens. There’s never a bad idea. She doesn’t talk down to kids, treating them as adults. She then synthesizes, distills and does. Which inspires people. To be heard. To be productive. To make a difference. And to line up behind her. She would make a helluva CEO, but she does far more good as a teacher.

In two weeks I’ll tell you more. I’m out of column inches. But I’ll bid farewell by admonishing you to attend Nancy’s Kelp Fest from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday on the cobblestone at Main Beach.

Wander around, get inspired to do good things and say hello to Nancy. Then meander across the street to the companion festival Earth Day, produced by the good folks at Transition Laguna, and running from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This one-two punch of ocean and earth awareness will inspire you to become a better eco citizen. You and your kids will learn how to green your lives, have fun, and save money. They’ll be rain barrel and compost bin giveaways, speakers and unbelievably rootsy Laguna music with Nick Hernandez, World Anthem, Salty Suites, the Dupp Brothers and the Laguna Beach High School Jazz Band. All free. And don’t miss the Kelp Fest closing drum circle at 3 p.m. Bring a drum. Check for a complete listing of events.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and on the board of Transition Laguna.