CI Photojournal: Diving in an Underwater Forest

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.

sea otter near Monterey, California

A sea otter wrapped in kelp. This wild otter has been tagged by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of a monitoring program. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.

California's Point Lobos State Reserve

Dive site location at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel, California. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.

sea urchin eating kelp

A sea urchin feeding on kelp. Declines in sea otter numbers have led to a booming sea urchin population, which has taken a toll on California's kelp forests. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.

kelp forest in California

Early morning light descends through the canopy of kelp off the coast of California. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.

California sea lion

A close encounter with a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) near the kelp forest. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.


A close-up view of kelp underwater. Some species of kelp have been known to grow as much as 20 inches (51 centimeters) a day. (© Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP)

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.


  1. Kathleen Zuniga says

    It’s devastating to see that sea otters are on their way to extinction! These are majestic creatures, there should be no need for their fur. I’m sad to say that I haven’t been blessed with the opportunity to visit these areas of California to see these natural beauties first hand. This article has made this a top priority for me though. When people hear California they shouldn’t first think of celebrities, but they should instead think about the beauty this state holds and the creatures that call this place home.

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  3. Tim Upham says

    Kelp forests benefit human beings as well. Commercial harvesting provides ingredients which go into the production of ice cream and paint. It also benefits the abalone fisheries too. The cold water that kelp forests thrive in, means it has not developed toxic chemicals to ward off voracious grazers, such as sea urchins and snails. As a results, abalones which live of drifting, dead kelp so abundant along the Pacific coast, thrive and grow huge on the highly nutritious food. You could not have an abundant abalone fisheries without it. The sea otter could not survive without both the sea urchins and abalones. Kelp forest are essential.

  4. mary@deepsea creatures says

    It’s nice to know that there are people who are very conscious in terms environmental activities. Your site is so interesting because of the facts that you have posted regarding in the natural beauty of our nature. Expecting for more facts i regards of our environment.

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