California has long had the reputation for being one of the U.S.’s most beautiful and environmentally-conscious states. This week, as leaders in business, government and the environmental movement gather in southern California to discuss sustainability at Fortune Brainstorm GREEN, we’re bringing you a series of blogs spotlighting the natural beauty of the California coast — seen through the eyes of photographer and videographer Keith Ellenbogen. Check out his previous post.
Charismatic sea otters (Enhydra lutris) have long been captivating people’s attention with their cute gestures, friendly smiles and soft, fluffy fur.
One feature distinguishing otters from seals and sea lions is that sea otters don’t have any blubber. They stay warm in the cold seas with a thick coat of fur that has more strands of hair per square centimeter than any other animal.
Sadly, in the early 1900s their fur was so sought after that the species was nearly hunted to extinction. As the number of sea otters declined, the sea urchin population — one of the otters’ main food sources — boomed. This rise in sea urchin populations (an animal that eats kelp) caused the kelp forest to decline to a point of real concern.
To capture images of the kelp forests, I descended beneath the surface into the cold 55-degree Fahrenheit (13-degree Celsius) ocean water of Monterey Bay. I felt like a kid in a fairy tale, dwarfed by the scale of this giant seaweed. Giant kelp grow rapidly — up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) a day.
Photographing the kelp was a challenge, as I was swaying back and forth in an undulating motion propelled by the surge of the sea. As I drifted, I looked for images that captured light traveling beneath the canopy, as well as a host of beautiful animals such as nudibranches, unusual crabs and fish.
Kelp forests are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the ocean, providing food and shelter for countless marine species. Fortunately, thanks to the collaboration of scientists, governments and conservation organizations working to protect sea otters and restore nature’s balance, otters — and their kelp forest home — are making a comeback. While perhaps not yet a perfect success story, this is a testament to the power of collective action — proof that it’s not too late to change what’s happening to our oceans.
Keith Ellenbogen is a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). His California assignment was part of a larger effort to document the state of some of the world’s most important and vulnerable marine ecosystems — and the people who depend on them — in support of the Ocean Health Index, a new tool for benchmarking global ocean health that will launch later this year. Check out his previous blog series from the Philippines’ Turtle Islands, and see more of Keith’s photos on the New England Aquarium Explorers Blog.