When I first learned to dive in 1985 in Monterey, I saw how beautiful the kelp forests were and how life seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the rocky reefs. That was my baseline of what a healthy kelp forest was like. Eventually I began volunteering for REEF and Reef Check to give back to the ocean and contribute to science by becoming a citizen science diver.
In 2013 I was diving in the cold waters of Puget Sound in Washington State and I saw many huge, twenty-armed sea stars turning to goo. Sea Star wasting disease caused stars to disintegrate right on the reef or sand, leaving a ghostly white star shape behind. The disease quickly decimated many species of starfish over the entire west coast from Baja to Alaska.
Not long after that I was doing work for Reef Check as a volunteer in Monterey and noticed all the kelp disappearing. Urchin barrens, purple moonscapes with almost no life except purple urchins, were expanding.
A multi-year, unprecedented extreme marine heat wave caused urchins to become superabundant and for kelp to do very poorly. Kelp needs cold, nutrient rich water and when there was less kelp debris drifting into the cracks where urchins normally live, urchins ran out of food. They came out of cracks and moved into the kelp forest. Urchins began eating the holdfasts where kelp is attached to the reef and the entire kelp rips up and ends up washing onto the beach.
I thought the situation was bad in 2015, but when an established marine refuge in California at Lovers Cove, Pacific Grove, a spectacular kelp forest filled with hundreds of animal species, became an urchin barren in 2017, I thought we urgently needed to do something about it.
I’m not a scientist! I’m just a general contractor and an engineer. Sometimes it takes someone looking at a problem from a different perspective to be willing to take on a problem. I simply found myself in a good position with my experience and connections to the diving community to hatch an arguably crazy plan that the public agencies were not willing to take on.
In 2018 I started the Giant Giant Kelp Restoration Project. I worked with Reef Check to get permits to do experiments in urchin barrens to find out how many urchins we needed to remove in order to allow kelp to regrow. We found out that we had to have less than 0.5 urchin on a square meter of reef for kelp to grow back!
At about the same time, Bruce Watkins of California Diving Magazine and I began submitting petitions to start clearing urchin barrens that had completely eaten many of the kelp forests in Monterey, but we were repeatedly denied. Meanwhile, the number of divers who were alarmed by the loss of kelp forests continued to grow and they joined my project as volunteers.
Eventually, with the help of hundreds of volunteers sending letters of support and speaking out at California Fish and Game Commission meetings, last April, 2021, we were given permission to begin working on clearing the urchin barrens in a part of Monterey Bay called Tanker's Reef.