The Kelp Conditioning
Open-water swimming off Pacific Grove’s coast nets a dozen understandings.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
When all you see – and smell – of kelp are decaying strands on the beach, the notion of a vibrant undersea forest is more mystery than majesty. But swimming along and below the water’s surface, the fluttery wands of giant algae create an environment unparalleled by any terrestrial recreation. Best of all, it’s accessible without the technical (and expensive) bells and whistles of many water sports: This aquatic wilderness, and an immersion in the landscape we admire from shore and through glass, becomes personally yours with little more than a wetsuit and some goggles. With it comes a range of gifts – 12 appear here, gathered by a reporter brand new to regular Sunday swims off Lovers Point:
1. A workout. A half-mile each way to NOAA station 46240, a yellow buoy, makes good training for regulars in this group, the Kelp Krawlers. Most are training for any one of a dozen races they’ll compete in this year (up next: a wetsuitless relay across Lake Tahoe). Others come for fun – mostly. As co-founder Erica Fox says, “I’ve always liked beating boys at sports.”
2. Exploration. Mitigate the buoyancy of a wetsuit with a hand-over-hand descent down a strand of kelp. Or float at the surface, where jellyfish provide magnificent underwater luminescence.
3. Healing. Besides the exercise, it’s meditative. Group co-founder Greg Knowles says, “It’s more spiritual than sport to me.”
4. Community. Chris Villanueva, dubbed the Kelp Krawlers’ sherpa, says he takes more hot showers (through a portable get-up) in the Lovers Point parking lot than at home. He doles out spare wetsuits from his trunk to un-outfitted newcomers, and shares hot chocolate afterward.
5. Identity. Google satellite shows the topography, but intimacy with this landscape takes a plunge. Temperature and nutrient levels are kelp-friendly all year, but winter storms clear canopies in winter, opening new channels through the kelp forest.
6. Access to an underwater national park. Urchin-munching otters keep the herbivores in check in this National Marine Sanctuary, and you can play in the middle of an active food chain. The 100-foot kelp can strike awe in any Redwood admirer.
7. Sensory indulgence. The color, clarity, waves, taste and currents are dynamic, changing every swim.
8. Excitment. The fear of white sharks (though there’ve been only three fatal attacks in California in 15 years), leaping sea lions, thickets of jellyfish and errant sailboats can nag a bit. Should you get tangled in kelp, Michael Foster, professor emeritus at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, advises a fingernail nick is enough to snap the offending frond and free yourself.
9. Unwanted extras. Less visible than man-eating creatures is fecal matter. County Environmental Health Inspectors walk beaches regularly, dipping bottles into the waves to collect samples. The $32,000-a-year program looks for offenders like coliform bacteria. “Generally we’re dealing with a huge dilution factor,” says Stallworth. “But if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with your mouth open, you’re at risk.” Easy rules to help avoid it: Don’t swim after first rains, or gulp sea water.
10. Seal friends. The Marine Mammal Protection Act – plus things like “sealfinger,” a largely antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with seal bites – keep you from approaching creatures. But they will approach you; seals are especially game for hide and seek, circling swimmers.
11. Magic. They’re no narwhales (the probable originators of the unicorn myth) but seals’ proclivity to lock eyes with humans in moments of calm between the waves betrays a special connectivity.
12. Humility. Awash in the expansive Pacific, you can’t help but be reminded of your small, albeit amphibious, place in the world.
KELP KRAWLERS meet 11:15am Sundays year-round at Lovers Point, and 5:45pm Fridays during summer (daylight savings) at Wharf #2. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/KelpKrawlers
The Kelp Conditioning