Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Journey Through Kelp

Bull Kelp is so beautiful, especially now in the early spring when the young “sporophyte” stage is growing at an insanely fast rate. The stipe (stem-like structure) of this kelp species, Nereocystis luetkeana, can grow to be up to 36 m long. The stipe would have to grow an average of 17 cm a day to reach this length in the 210-day growing period (source: Druel). 

The growth rate of the stipe and fronds together (the leaf-like structures) has been documented to reach an average of 25 cm per day (source: Duncan). 

Baby bull kelp

Baby Bull Kelp

It is at this early stage of growth too that Bull Kelp is an intense colour green unlike anything else I know. When older, the colour darkens to an olive green. 

Kelp is an alga, not a plant. However, like plants, algae also photosynthesize, converting the sun’s energy into food. Algae have simpler structures and different chemical pathways than plants.

Young Bull Kelp grows so fast to allow the leaf-like parts, called “fronds”, to be closer to the sun so that more food can be made.  

Sun streaming through a Bull Kelp forest.

The round, floating part of the kelp, is the “pneumatocyst”. This bladder-like structure is completely hollow and is filled with carbon monoxide (NOT carbon dioxide), allowing the long fronds to drift at the surface to catch the sun’s rays. 

Apparently, there is enough carbon monoxide in Bull Kelp to kill a chicken! Now that’s valuable information. See my blog “Enough Carbon Monoxide to Kill a Chickenat this link. 

The stipe is also hollow. I’m sure it is not what Nature had intended, but this allows we humans to play the stipe of Bull Kelp like a trumpet or didgeridoo! The stipe gets thinner and whip-like near the holdfast which is why Bull Kelp likely got its name because the stipe is shaped like a “bull whip”.

Bull Kelp does not have roots. Rather it is a “holdfast”, a tangle of  woody structures, that anchors Bull Kelp onto rocks. However, if rocks are too light to counter the floatation of the pneumatocyst, the kelp will actually change the ocean bottom by carrying away smaller rocks, likely ending up washed onto the shore. 

Bull kelp holdfast. No roots.

Bull Kelp holdfast. No roots. See my blog on holdfasts at this link. 

Bull Kelp always grows in patches, truly forming an underwater forest that is life-giving for the same reasons as terrestrial forests: kelp forests buffer the climate change gas carbon dioxide; produce oxygen; and provide food and habitat for so many other organisms. Bull Kelp forests are, in fact, estimated to provide habitat for some 750 species of fish and invertebrates (animals without backbones).

Sea urchins are one of those invertebrates, living in the forest and grazing on a lot of Bull Kelp. If Sea Otters, Mink, Wolf-Eels and other predators of urchins did not keep urchins in check, there would be further reduced kelp forests. Sea Star Wasting Syndrome has devastated the world’s largest sea star species, the Sunflower Star (Pyncopodia helianthoides) which is a predator of Green Urchins. This has led to too many of these urchins and an increase in the number of urchin barrens. Please see my blog here for information on urchin barrens and Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. 

Kelp forests are not what they used to be for reasons far beyond our foolishness in over-harvesting Sea Otters. There used to be such dense forests that it is theorized “Ancient humans from Asia may have entered the Americas following an ocean highway made of dense kelp.

All coastal boaters still benefit from kelp. It is a navigational aid since, where it grows, you know you there is shallower water.

We divers have yet an additional reason to value kelp.  Since it is so strong,  we can hold onto it if we need to during our safety stop (3 minutes at 5 metres depth) or if needing to gradually pull ourselves down into the depths or back to the surface.   

Oh – and you can eat it. (I love pickled young Bull Kelp!) 

And yes, you could do puppet shows with Bull Kelp, cutting a face into the bladder like you would into a jack-o-lantern. The fronds even look like two pig-tails! 

THEN there is how Bull Kelp reproduces. The offspring look nothing like their parents. Please see here for my blog on the remarkable phenomena that is “alternation of generations”. 

But for now, come underwater with me. Come into the forest, breath in, breath out and worship the kelp!

My additional blog items on kelp include:


11 Responses to “Journey Through Kelp”

  1. ev

    I am filled with new knowledge after reading this. I have always thought the bulbs were just uprooted and that then the fronds were dead. I love the video and with the sound turned up for a brief moment I can feel like I am there with you.
    I have never tried (or heard of) pickled kelp but would love to try it. I used to eat gow (sic) in Haida Gwaii and really liked it but recently had it at a potlatch and really did not like it so not sure if the kelp that the herring spawn on is different from one area to another or I am just old now and have lost taste buds!
    Thanks Jackie for a wonderful start to my day.

    • jackiehildering

      And you Ev – thank you SO much for a wonderful start to my day. It means so much to know that this “vehicle” is worth the effort; to have you coming under the surface!

  2. jacqui Engel

    Kelp is so so wonderful, I think of it as a flag pole in strong current, it has saved me more than once!

  3. Cindy Matwichuk

    Love your website Jackie! Thank you for sharing your knowledge & educating us on the ocean! I look forward to each of your new entries!

  4. Elaine Kiesel

    This is so fascinating Jackie! Thank you so much for giving us landlovers the opportunity to see the beauty we would otherwise miss.

    • jackiehildering

      My absolute pleasure! Getting comments like yours fuels my enthusiasm to keep doing this. So important to me that there is a “community” beginning to build. Thanks so for taking the time to comment.

  5. Yvonne

    Thank you Jackie for sharing this with us. Absolutely gorgeous pictures. I could look at them all day. It’s so nice to be learning from you again after all these years. If I ever get the chance I’m going to have to try that pickled kelp. Sounds interesting. Take care.

    • jackiehildering

      Thank you so much Yvonne for your great active presence and encouragement for this project. Such a mind-twist to think of you there on the other side of the planet – following my education attempts here. Means so much .

  6. Mark Benson

    Hi. So informative! I work as a sea kayak guide in the Salish Sea. We often see white patches on the fronds of the bull kelp and I often get asked what those white patches are. I was looking that question up when I found your page. Can you help me with this question?


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