Sea Palm Culture: In the Weeds
Our Kelp Forest exhibit is a visitor favorite. It’s gorgeous, and in 1984 it was the first living kelp forest grown outside the wild.
Today it’s home to a forest of giant kelp and bull kelp, and an understory of more than 65 other species of algae that colonize the exhibit as their spores enter with the raw seawater from Monterey Bay.
Thirty years later, we’ve created a second kelp forest in our galleries. Like the original, it’s home to marine algae that have never been grown at an aquarium. It’s every bit as remarkable as the original (if a bit smaller).
Look closely and you’ll find it in our Wave Crash exhibit, outside the signature walk-through tunnel. The exhibit resembles the complex ecosystem of the rocky shore because Aquarist Reggie Gary has painstakingly coaxed sea palms, feather boa kelp and at least three species of rockweed to grow in a man-made environment.
No. 1 algae fan: Julie Packard
Reggie’s efforts have won him a big fan: Executive Director Julie Packard.
“I fell in love with the ocean studying the amazing diversity of seaweeds on our rocky shores,” says Julie. “Sea palms are limited to really wild shorelines and it’s always a special treat to see them! We were proud to pull off growing giant kelp – but I never imagined we’d be able to grow sea palms. They are really challenging. Kudos to Reggie!”
You can see them at Point Lobos, or on the exposed rocky shorelines of Big Sur. They’re almost cartoon-like – a living Dr. Seuss creation.
Sea palms thrive under the harshest conditions: battered by fierce waves, alternately submerged in the surf and exposed to the air.
Just like Goldilocks
If the rocks are underwater too much of the time, or too high above the waves, they can’t support sea palms. Like Goldilocks, conditions have to be “just right.” Creating “just right” conditions is Reggie’s labor of love.
“I got a little emotional when I saw the first sea palms starting to grow, because no one else is doing it,” he says. “These are my babies.”
He started by collecting a few sea palms from the wild. He experimented, placing them in different locations in the outdoor Wave Crash pool, with mixed results.
He finally found the perfect spots: two exposed pinnacles that project above the water and are battered every 30 seconds by artificial waves.
Palm trees of the rocky shore
These hollow-tubed algae resemble miniature palm trees, and can grow to be just over two feet tall.
The adults that Reggie first collected produced microscopic gametophytes, the male and female offspring that colonize the exhibit. Each spring, in March or April, they reproduce and begin to grow a few centimeters a day. (Giant kelp grows several inches a day.) Each fall, the adult sea palm completes its life cycle and dies, leaving behind a new generation of gametophytes.
That’s what Reggie discovered when new sea palms first sprouted in the exhibit on their own.
“It was awesome,” he says. “I was in tears.”
A “geeked out” algae enthusiast
Success fired him up. Reggie frankly admits that he’s completely “geeked out” by rocky shore mysteries.
He next started colonies of other algae from the exposed rocky shore: feather boa kelp that looks like something a dance-hall girl would wear; and tiny Silvetia, Fucus and Endocladia rockweeds. All are growing and reproducing, just as they would in the wild.
Reggie’s also had luck with colonies of gooseneck barnacles, while fending off oystercatchers and other wild shorebirds that want to grab them as snacks. Like the algae, gooseneck barnacles thrive under pounding waves, alternately submerged and exposed to sunlight and air.
Location, location, location – and love
“It’s all about location,” Reggie says.
Location – and tender loving care. He makes sure there’s plenty of raw seawater running through the exhibit, so the algae get the nutrients they need. He drops the water level in the exhibit for two hours each morning so they’re left high and dry. And he’s arranged to have the waves crash 24/7 so his finicky charges are battered day and night.
Reggie’s been part of the Husbandry team for 25 years since we recruited him from the California Conservation Corps. After working in the food room and in every exhibit gallery, he now has special permission to focus on Rocky Shore exhibits, bringing what he sees in the wild to our visitors.
“When you’ve been here for 25 years, and you’re still excited to come in every day – that’s the best!” Reggie says.
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