Who cries when ecosystems die?

The fog outside my door rolls to me from the coast with the cry of a forest dying within its thick stream. A voice picked off the surf a few short miles from here. Waves that joyfully guarded the forests below them for a millennium now mourn for the loss of that life. A loss that includes not only the kelp but hundreds of creatures that depend on it. And for people there is loss too. Going back tens of thousands of years people have enjoyed and made a living from the bounty of this coast.

I watched them go. Kelp, Abalone, Rockfish, Starfish — on the North Coast of California the loss is so great you can see it from space (satellites show the loss of kelp forests over last decade). Life, gone. An ecosystem, decimated. The scary thing is it seems to almost happen overnight. In Northern California the insane growth in population over the past 40 years has driven much environmental stress. I have seen many ecosystems and fisheries collapse. But this one — it really gets to me. Recognized as one of the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on Earth, kelp forests were thought to be robust. Losing these forests is devastating. To see them go is a loss for my youth, but also a cultural and economic loss. The fishery and businesses around it generated hundreds of millions in local revenue annually. And, the recreation surrounding the fisheries was a tradition and lifestyle for thousands of families.

This sculpture in this video is dedicated to Kelp Forests everywhere.

Growing up in California, the primary gift many of us enjoyed living here was an abundant healthy natural environment. Nature with her beauty, glory and vast resources was the prize we enjoyed for the price we pay to live here. A big chunk of that promise just rolled over and died.

Below is my trip report from just before the crash, October 2017. The next year I went under to visit the forests I love they were gone along the Sonoma part of the coast. All my favorite spots, everywhere and dozens of species that lived there too, gone — an underwater desert. The ecosystem had collapsed (for an interesting historical perspective on ecosystem collapse, see the book Collapse by Jared Diamond).

Here is my trip report that last year before the die off:

“She is big, deep and the cold can be numbing. She can smash you against jagged rocks with the bat of an eye. Yet below the surface, on this stretch of coast there can be extreme serenity and beauty. For 30 years these waters have welcomed me. Breakers and swells on the surface are often ominous. But below, 15–20 feet down, a new universe emerges. Gently swaying forests of kelp hold dozens of colorful fish species within their lair. Below them, the oranges, purples and pinks of Abalone, Shellfish, Starfish and Urchin blanket the rocky ocean floor. The vast space and abundance of life projects a sense of impermanence yet visits here are shrouded in extreme vulnerability. The juxtaposition can be disorienting.

How long have I been down this dive, one minute, is it two, three? I notice my breath is near spent, have I drifted? Is there a clear path back to the surface through the kelp jungle above? I look up to what I have seen for years. Kelp giants reaching 25 ft. above me to the surface. They dance with the swells as color fish and flecks of gold and silver blanket the canopy, sparkling around the kelp like snowflakes. It feels more like virtual reality or deep space than being in the ocean. It is the most beautiful place I know.

As a free diver, there are only so many dives you can make in a day before becoming exhausted. Twenty, thirty, hard to know, it varies but this limit makes you want to stay down as long as possible each time — the up and down rhythm of the free diver has its own seduction. But the bigger seduction is at depth.

Near the bottom gentle pressure from all sides, ebbing current and neutral buoyancy from the wet suit and 25 lb. belt combine forming a sense of weightlessness and comfort. Certain senses fade — sound, touch, smell. Others are heightened — vision, space, time. There is almost a feeling of the beginnings of life, back in the womb. Weightless floating in colors and shifting light. If you can ever feel what being here is like, it can seem like heaven. A feeling so strong, it’s never lost or forgotten. You can summon that peace once held in any moment or breath.

Yet this womb, she is dying. We have known it for years — the increasing toxicity from industry and urban run-off, invasive species, temperature change from global warming and the ensuing acidification of oceans can now not be ignored.

Twenty feet down now and I can see a large dark shadow on floor from something that passes above me. Shit, what was that? I am in a thin wetsuit and feel extremely vulnerable. I can’t see behind me. I am small, cold, and almost out of breath. Great White Sharks hunt in this water! I turn back toward the surface and look up. Relief — it was only a seal. Still, the relief is temporary. What is that behind me now? Is my breath holding? Do I have an unrestricted route through the kelp to the surface when I lose my breath? Looking up, none of that matters now. I want to give up. There is no kelp behind me this year, a few strands still left in pockets in front still, but it is clear these once mighty forests are gone. Here in this previously impenetrable stalwart of all ecosystems, the indomitable Sonoma coast- we are at the point that we have killed a great forest. Once as mightily as anything in the Sierras and on match for the grandeur of the Coastal Redwood forests, the kelp forests are but a memory and cry on the wind”.

– RIP Abalone, Hole in the Fence Cove, Sonoma Coast, 10/31/2017

Right after one of my last dives in 2017. The brown patches across the surface are the tops of kelp forests. Those are all gone now up and down the coast.

It is not just this NorCal fishery that is collapse. Please watch the excellent film Chasing Coral for a broader picture of the problem. Examples of ecosystem collapse span the oceans and globe. Can we all help fix it? I don’t know. Do I really need to drive to get the coffee in that cup I throw away? Could I walk instead or not make a special trip? Do I really need that new piece of furniture or electronics, or can you reuse or make do with what you have instead? Could I eat more stainable and with less impact? Do we really need more kids?

There is no way to consume on a planet with 8 billion people without some negative externality. And when this consumption is making even nature’s womb sterile, we need to take notice. Nature thanks you and you can rest better for helping to quell the voice of Nature dying on the wind.

Best,

Robert

PS: For a beautiful look at some of what was lost, see My Octopus Teacher. Yes, this is a different kelp forest, and hopefully not facing the same danger yet but it looks similar and the lessons on life and empathy for other species / Nature really comes through in this film.