I’m Sydney, the “Golden Seal,” La Jolla Ecological Reserve swimming sensation and Judith’s snorkeling chaperone. After years of regularly traversing La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores and back, I figure I’m qualified to sound off about a subject that interests me. That topic is kelp paddies, those tangled masses of independently floating marine algae and grasses that form quagmires for us swimmers to thrash through and sometimes get wedged (or maybe that’s just me).
Anglers have known for centuries that any object floating in the ocean attracts fish. Take my tail (not literally!), for example. There I was swimming along and, as I swiped aside a scrap of kelp, I failed to notice it sheltered a tiny magenta and yellow hitchhiker. The displaced, half-inch-long juvenile blacksmith fish didn’t miss a beat. It adapted by adopting the underside of my fluffy, blond tail, circling under it as I navigated toward the Shores.
Whatever shield my tail briefly conferred, a kelp paddy would have offered the baby blacksmith longer-term security. Still, a paddy’s existence is relatively fleeting because winds and currents push them to shore where getting left high and dry is a forgone conclusion. Paddies come in all shapes and may range in size from that of a treed cat to the magnitude of my substantial backyard. A paddy may house a menagerie more diverse than what’s found at the humane society. I’ve discovered isopods (marine pill bugs), snails, snail eggs, tiny anemones and sea slugs. As noted, kelp paddies are juvenile fish magnets, the progeny of parents living nearby. Fish like blacksmith, smelts and señoritas are big paddy users, as are transparent, minute pipefish. Researchers think young fish hang out under kelp paddies for protection, but while they’re at it, they chow down on plankton floating by. After gaining girth, they are better prepared to sink down and face the challenges of adulthood.
But enough about early life according to some fish. What on earth births a kelp paddy? Kelps aren’t like us at all. Instead of basking in summer surface water temperatures of at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit, these cold-water-loving puppies go to wrack and ruin (actually, they face ruin first and later end up as beach wrack). The warm water leaves their upper fronds vulnerable to attack by tiny encrusting and parasitic animals that wreak more havoc than fleas. Eventually, the furry, hole-ridden, decaying kelp parts weaken and break off. They don’t sink to the bottom because kelps’ regularly spaced gas bladders float them to the surface, where wind and currents push them around. As they move, they hook up with other wayward plant and algal flotsam. The motley collection that forms is a paddy.
By mid-summer and later (that would be now), paddies are enjoying growth spurts as they swirl on the surface and snag other hapless drifting algae and grasses that cross their path. Topside, the paddies look like snarled bundles but their underside presents a more festive appearance that mirrors the decorations hung at my annual birthday celebrations. In this case, though, the streamers dangling from the paddy “ceiling” are made up of seagrass strands.
Kelp paddies are uncharted, ephemeral territories, which means they pose a unique chance for us adventurers to thrill in exploring virgin terrain that’s right under our cold, wet noses. Why wait for this summer to become a faded memory? Dog-paddle on out and see for yourself what lies on, over and under the free-floating kelp fronds and curly strands. Just keep one eye peeled on your tail.
Sydney the Golden Seal is a retriever-husky who las logged many miles of ocean swims. She writes her column, "Sydney's Ocean Log," about the wonders of our watery world. When not dog paddling or opining, Sydney pursues archaeology research in her backyard. Write to Sydney using the Contact page, and put Sydney the Golden Seal in the Subject line.
— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.