Exploring the Giant Kelp Forest of Point Lobos, Monterey MPA Collaborative

Latest update July 27, 2020 Started on May 29, 2018

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a "crown jewel" of the California State Park system offers distance learning to K-12 students through the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) programs. Live interactive videoconferences are delivered from a kayak to classrooms focusing on the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of the giant kelp forest ecosystem. The underwater ROV brings the program to another level. Students witness directly the wildlife that depends upon this hidden underwater habitat.

May 29, 2018
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In The Field

Using our 'eyes of the ocean', Moby, our Trident mini-ROV, we observe a multitude of color and texture of different life forms. Identified by its deep red white-dotted column and red-brown-green tentacles, the white-spotted rose anemone can be seen both opened and closed. Waiting for a meal to swim by or drop in, this creature will stun its prey (plankton, small fish, an urchin or sea star that falls in to its mouth), using the stinging cells, called nematocysts, located in its tentacles. Also encountered on this expedition, bat stars, leather stars, sea urchins, coralline algae, sponges, and kelp. While this may look like a vast urchin barren, it is surrounded by kelp and seaweed on all sides, and sea otters are no stranger to this spot! If you can, slow down this footage, to look for signs of ecological intrigue; empty urchin shells, puffed up sea stars, and a variety of invertebrate life!

Point Lobos State Marine Reserve is one 124 Marine Protected Areas along the California coast. MPAs contribute to healthier, more resilient ocean ecosystems that can better withstand a wide range of impacts such as pollution and climate change. By protecting entire ecosystems rather than focusing on a single species, MPAs are powerful tools for conserving and restoring ocean biodiversity, and protecting cultural resources, while allowing certain activities such as marine recreation and research. There is a global body of scientific evidence about the effectiveness of marine protected areas and reserves to restore marine ecosystems (http://www.piscoweb.org).

Moby, our Trident mini-ROV, goes for an area just north of Cannery Point. We actively sought out an open area just beyond Whalers Cove. The kelp forest is so thick right now at Whalers Cove that Moby can get tangled up in a moment. So we paddle the kelp kayak towards Bluefish Cove and drop in right off the point. There was both giant brown kelp and bull kelp surrounding this area, but as you will see, there are a lot of purple sea urchins devouring the kelp in their immediate area. This is a spot to keep our eye on, there is a healthy sea otter population at Point Lobos, as well as a thriving kelp forest adjacent to this. One thing we have learned is that not all sea otters eat sea urchins, and particular food choices are often passed down to their offspring. Sea stars and the California sheephead fish also eat urchins. If you slow down the footage, you might get some glimpses of the sea stars also in the area. The fascinating dynamics of nature are alive and well at Point Lobos SNR.

During this exploration, the air temperature was a incredible 75 degrees F and the ocean surface temperature was 55 degrees F.

Yes! We have the coordinates so we can visit this spot again. It is easy to find. On land from Cannery Point, this opening in the kelp forest is also easy to see. We have taken photographs from that vantage point as well to compare any differences.

Even though kelp attaches itself to the rocky substrate at the bottom of the ocean, there is lots of sand surrounding those rocks as we get a peek at here. Winter has been long, wet, and stormy here at Point Lobos and Moby (our newly named Trident, it is the mini-ROV formerly known as the Whalers Cove Explorer), has not been in the kelp forest for a while. You will be able to tell as you watch the fast paced video, with some self-composed music to kind of slow it down so you can see the amazing sandy bottom section of the kelp forest. The constant ocean motion moves this sand around forming a place where clams and mussels will burrow themselves. This way they try to avoid predation from leopard sharks, who have been observed swimming in this area of the kelp forest. Conditions at 10:30am on top of the water were near ideal: sunny sky, 65 degrees F/18 degrees C air temperature, gentle wind with just enough force to produce a fun swell or two. Surface ocean temperature was 52 degree F/11 degrees C and clarity was murky at best. The movement of the giant kelp leaf is kind of mesmerizing.


Wild wet winter storms have kept Moby (the mini-ROV formerly known as the Whalers Cove Explorer) out of the water. With spring time upon us, things should gradually shift to more conducive conditions to get out into the kelp forest and explore. In going through some of our footage, I took some photos that highlight some of the diversity found here in the giant kelp forest along the central California coast. In the weeks to come, Moby will be our eyes into the this incredible underwater forest at Point Lobos.

Photos: Whalers Cove from land, Seastars along the bottom of the kelp forest, and blue rockfish round out the rest of the photos.

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‘I can only compare these great aquatic forests ... with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp. Amidst the leaves of this plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, the otters, seals, and porpoise, would soon perish also’--Charles Darwin, 1 June 1834, Tierra del Fuego, Chile (Darwin 1909, pp. 256–257).

Kelp forests are relied upon by almost 1,000 different animal species, owing its abundance of life to strong NW winds that prevail during the summer, driving the surface water seaward. Near the coast cold, nutrient-rich water from deep below the surface moves up to fill the void. Kelp and phytoplankton absorb these nutrients; providing the base for an incredible aquatic food web.

Point Lobos SNR, with it's marine protected area surrounding this incredible chunk of land, has been a leader in marine protection, achieving marine reserve status in 1960, making it one of the oldest marine protected areas in the nation. What this means is this is a no-take zone, everything natural must remain here and not taken by humans, i.e. no fishing or shell collecting, etc.

There is a reason why Point Lobos is often called the 'crown jewel of the California State Park system'.

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Last week, the members of the Monterey chapter of the MPA Collaborative Network met at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for a mini-ROV in-service training. Also on hand were Zach and Joseph from OpenROV. It was great to have them along to share their story and also to offer up tips of how to handle these incredible exploratory tools. Leandra Lopez and Calla Allison, from the network were also there providing all kinds of great guidance and protocols in using these mini-ROV’s. Then it was the hands-on part of the training! The Whalers Cove Explorer was used to train others in how to maneuver in and around the giant kelp. That’s the big obstacle here is avoiding entanglement, so we experienced the finesse of maneuvering back and forth to untangle and also learned the cord can withstand a fair amount of pull (up to 300lbs. if memory serves right).

Check out what we discovered during this training, for first timers everyone did really well. This video footage was taken from the rocks adjacent to the parking lot at Whalers Cove, so depth is shallow up to maybe 15ft. /5m maximum.

The colorful seaweeds and coralline algae start growing right beneath the ocean’s surface, so much to see and take in. Be on the lookout for fish, there looks to be some kelp greenling and a perch swimming by (help with fish ID is much appreciated!). Since this is an inaugural voyage for many today, the Whalers Cove Explorer is bumping around a bit, getting tangled up in kelp. This is all part of the process, and even almost 6 months of exploring the kelp forest, I still have to take caution to not get caught up in the kelp and also to remember how to maneuver out of those situations (usually a combo of moving the WCE back and forth and some gentle pulling on the cord).

The kelp forest never disappoints in providing vibrant life to observe and explore. I hope you can slow down this footage and really take a look at the various shapes, colors, and expressions of life this oceanic ecosystem sustains. There was also an unexpected visitor that swam right into the Cove, a gray whale! It was an amazing day at the Reserve! https://youtu.be/c3WWojScX2o

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Wow great footage! I look forward to seeing more from you all. Go kelp!

Sea Stars at Whalers Cove

The ochre star is one of many different species of sea star you will find here at Whalers Cove. Seeing these keystone predators in different areas of the cove reveals a hopeful bellwether of ecological health. Preying upon mussels, urchins, barnacles, and many other things, sea stars insert their stomach into their prey, making a smoothie out of it with its digestive enzymes, and then taking its belly back into its own body, for a true out of body eating experience! Amazing…

If you can, pause and slow down this footage, take some time to survey the scene, count the number of sea stars you can spot, where are they and what are they doing? What do you notice?

The words ‘hopeful bellwether’ are used as sea stars along the Pacific coast have been plagued for the past number of years with a wasting disease, negatively affecting their populations. There is much more to learn about this, seastarwasting.org is a good place to get more information.

It’s an amazing world we share with the sea star, such an important ecological strand in the marine web of life.

Stay tuned, more to come...

Welcome to the world of rockfish at Point Lobos! Here we have two different species, blue and olive, with both being found in abundance here in Whalers Cove. By the end of this brief video, you will be able to easily tell the difference between these two kelp forest habitat-sharing fish. The dark speckled coloration of the blue rockfish contrasts with the yellow-olive-finned, white and dark spotted back of the olive rockfish. Since both of these species are fish that feed many others, including humans, this Marine Protected Area (MPA) affords these animals, along with numerous others, a safe zone where fishing, collecting, harvesting is prohibited. This gives a space for species to reproduce and increase their populations, helping to ensure the safety and integrity of the food web in which we all depend upon. For those of you who would like to learn more about ID'ing rockfish, the CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife has this resource: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Fish-ID/Sportfish/Rockfish

Truly appreciate the commentary. Thanks!

So often seen washed upon shore or floating among the drift, here we have bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in its natural habitat of cold nutrient-filled water growing in the outskirts of the giant kelp forest. This footage was taken August 2018 (by a GoPro HERO 5) at the mouth of Whalers Cove in about 40 ft/12 m deep water. Notice the anatomy of the bull kelp with its long singular stipe (can grow over 100 ft/30 m) and many long narrow leaf blades (can grow over 10 ft/3 m) growing from the top of the float. It is well-suited to take initial impacts of large swells as they enter the kelp forest as well as soak up a lot of sun! Bull kelp can even buffer the many-branched giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) from the brunt of these large winter storms. As you travel north along the coast, bull kelp becomes the dominant canopy-forming kelp all the way to the Gulf of Alaska, and is part of a rich complex ecosystem. Bull kelp is similar to a tree, providing the necessary elements for life; food, shelter and oxygen. Please enjoy this moment of watching the sunlight shine into the Pacific and upon one of our important "trees of the sea".

Cool! As an east-coast oceanographer, I've never really learned much about the kelp ecosystem. It is interesting to see there is a somewhat similar organization to other environmental assemblages: exterior plants that colonize and/or protect the interior habitat, different vertical structure to the system, etc. I look forward to more videos showing that, and the variety of life within the kelp forest.

The Whalers Cove Explorer returns for another Cannery Point Adventure. It is early December, in between rainstorms, when we take a look due north of Cannery Point. The water is shallow about 15 ft./4.5 m giving us a full vantage point of the giant kelp and some of the species that live with it. As we survey the scene, the swaying of the eel-grass in the water catches my eye. A cool thing about eel-grass is that it is a flowering plant...in the water! Kelp and seaweeds are algae, not plants lacking a flowering structure. Reproduction by way of spores, not seeds like plants, is how kelp makes more of itself. If you have been following this expedition along, you might start to recognize some of the species we are encountering here...senoritas off in the distance swimming below the kelp canopy, vibrant colors of bat stars scattered over the forest floor, and speaking of vibrance, check out the pink coralline algae bursting on your screen! Some other fish life encountered on this expedition are a pile perch or split tail perch, what looks to be a kelp rockfish, and then the star of this post...the blue rockfish. You are about to witness a blue rockfish party, just below the surface of the water. A beautiful sight to see this fish in such a large group here in the kelp forest. Thanks for taking a another look into the kelp forest life of Point Lobos!

Gorgeous footage. What a beautiful ecosystem. It still blows my mind that eel grass is a flowering plant. Absolutely fascinating. Keep up the great work!

I am always blown away by how much life a kelp forest can harbour, and the interations between its different residents! Super cool environments to know more about and essential for species conservation!

That is a good amount of Rockfish! I also wonder who cool it is that they don't get disturbed by the Trident!

The Whalers Cove Explorer is checking out the shallow areas just off of the parking lot. Right off we are greeted with feather boa kelp, one of the giant kelps of the forest, capable of growing up to 50ft/15m. It tends to grow in more shallow waters than that of the giant kelp and bull kelp. In this area right off of the parking lot we catch glimpses of blue rockfish and a lone senorita. Also take note of the kelp forest groundcover. Similar to a terrestrial forest, the kelp forest has layers with the pink coralline algae and the red seaweed making up this ground cover and the feather boa kelp falling into the shrub layer or the canopy layer, depending on the situation. Let's go out a little deeper where we can see the giant kelp growing. Here we see it growing straight and tall, a little redwood-esque until it reaches the surface of the water. It starts growing horizontal to outcompete other kelps and seaweeds for that all-important sunlight. We begin to see a loose school of senoritas doing their daytime thing, swimming around searching for invertebrates to feed upon. At night the situation is different and the senorita finds itself at the bottom of the ocean burrowing itself into the sand tail first with only its head sticking out. Swimming along side the senorita is the blue rockfish, a common sight here at Point Lobos and one our most prolific rockfish. The kelp forest life at Point Lobos continues to be full of discovery and exciting life forms. Stay tuned for next time...


Nice footage and exploration. Sometimes it's amazing what one can find so close to the surface.

Great video and narrative. I liked your final bit where we were encouraged to just take a moment to take in the beautiful scene. That is great advice and all to often missed these days.

The Whalers Cove Explorer returns back to Point Lobos to take a look at some kelp forest action on this November morning. First off, we are greeted with a loose school of senoritas swimming near the surface. Senoritas eat kelp isopods, as well as external parasites on other fish! Their cigar-shape, yellowish/orange color with black tail are keys to identifying it. Everywhere we look something is happening! Bite marks out of the giant kelp stipe, olive rockfish swimming by, and then a glimpse down to the bottom of the kelp forest. We are about 10-12 feet/3-3.5meters down and slow the film if you can. What you're likely to see are many sea stars, bright oranges, dull grays, and many colors in between. As the footage goes on you'll see a sea star getting closer to a purple sea urchin. Sea stars prey upon sea urchins, and in the past few years we have seen less sea stars due to something called wasting syndrome, which has depleted the sea star population. This footage gives us some hope that these species may be on the rebound. There is lots more to see with this footage: a school of blue rockfish, lots of pink coralline algae, and sea snails eating kelp leaf blades. This proved to be a great morning to check in on some kelp forest action. Until next time...

Great job on the use of the Trident. From the history of the videos you're getting better at manouvering it, and consequently getting better footage.

Also the idea of lecturing live from the kayak is amazing, I hope to be able to implement something similar in my expedition at a further stage.

Thanks, Nuno Veloso! Little by little, I am maneuvering it with a bit more control! Thanks for the recognition! Also, full disclosure, I add the audio to the footage back on land...

Very cool use of technology!

Nice work on the video and the expedition. I really admire the way you are streaming to schools. That is what I'm planning to do, so I'm interested to see how you are getting it done.

Good work piloting the OpenROV Trident, and kudos for doing it in such an energetic, complicated environment! BTW, have you thought about using that early solo video to teach kids about the dynamics of waves in the kelp forest area? It looked that those (surface waves) were what were making it so difficult. It would be cool to document the reduction in wave anergy as you go from the near surface to deeper waters. Just a thought your video prompted. Keep up the good work, I look forward to more.

Dave Eslinger, thanks for your comments and suggestions. It seems like there are so many applications to the expedition, and that is a really cool idea! I'd be happy to talk with you more about our livestreaming program, too!

The Whalers Cove Explorer goes on a field trip to the Monterey Harbor. Helping our friends at Monterey State Historic Park with their new whaling history/ocean science program, we stationed ourselves on the Chubasco at Discovery Whale Watch to do a trial run of this fledgling program. Conditions were too windy to leave the harbor, so this footage is taken from the docked boat. The sandy harbor bottom in contrast to the rocky substrate of the kelp forest is apparent here, hence the different array of life that might inhabit each place. We caught sight of a sea anemone, various pieces of seaweeds and kelp, as well as curious holes in the sandy bottom, perhaps from clams. The ROV demonstration will be one of the stations that students will participate in on this sea-going field trip. We are looking forward to assisting this program from MSHP as it begins its inaugural year. The ROV has just opened the lid on discovery for so many of us, looking into the ocean is always amazing!

Get ready for another session with the Whalers Cove Explorer! We're underwater at the east end of Whalers Cove, near the rock where the black oystercatchers nest and just below a Monterey cypress-lined trail to Coal Chute Point. Visibility is terrible, but we still get a glimpse of a harbor seal and various seaweeds, kelps, and lots of coralline algae. A fish shows up, any help in ID would be great. Along with navigating ROV's, I am trying to strengthen my fish ID skills, as well! Thanks for taking a look at some of the life here at Point Lobos!

A dive down to the bottom of Whalers Cove with the Trident ROV Whalers Cove Explorer. We are about 40 ft/12 m deep at the mouth of the Cove exploring the life here. What I think stands out is the abundance of purple sea urchins at this spot in the forest. What seems to be lacking in this immediate area is giant kelp. The kelp we are seeing waving along the ocean floor is walking kelp (Pterygophora), a classic understory kelp in the Pacific Coast kelp forest. Keep you eyes open for all kinds of life, especially sea stars! (If you slow down the film you'll be able to spot quite a number of them). These predators can help keep the urchin population in check! Also watch for sea snails, various fish, and something called coralline algae. This purplish-pink organism can be seen growing in two forms: encrusting and branched. You can easily tell the difference between this odd algae that once stumped scientists into thinking it was a coral! So much to experience and see under the surface of the ocean, we'll keep exploring! Until next time...

LOVE this narration. Awesome Daniel!

The fish at 1:41 was a female California Sheepshead fish, actually a species of wrasse.

Andrew Middleton, thank you for the ID! Much appreciated!

I loved watching this, Daniel! Great sea star spot, I missed it until you called it out

Getting more comfortable with the Whalers Cove Explorer and maneuvering throughout the tangling seaweed is a skill that I am acquiring. So let's take a 60 second dive just off Cannery Point into the shadowy world of giant kelp. This brief adventure reveals some of the life that depends on this marine forest and what we are protecting. So hold on, here we go...As we explore, we come across a yellow cigar-shaped fish known as the senorita darting through the water. Further on the blue rockfish appear. Almost like swimming rainbows, these fish are often seen in big numbers here at Point Lobos. As we check out the kelp, we can see vibrant algae-coated sea snails grazing on leaf blades, keeping the kelp growth in check. Now another spotting of blue rockfish moving along. Plankton is their primary diet which can be found in abundance in these waters. Now it is time to get back to the kayak!

The students I come in contact with are given the opportunity to check out this fascinating underwater world and also learn that it is up to us to make sure that these places always exist. Also happening soon, we will be doing a test-run to go underwater live into classrooms! Stay tuned!


The inaugural solo mission of the "Whalers Cove Explorer" (temporary name) leads us to a shallow area of the giant kelp forest at Whalers Cove. This can serve as documentation that there is plenty of room for growth in the operation of the ROV. No matter, it is great fun to see the kelp forest in such a unique way. Our next step is to have our underwater adventure go live during our PORTS/long-distance learning program. Anyone who has an insight into helping to make this happen, please reach out! Take a look at a one minute wild ride through the kelp forest frontier. More footage to come!


Our Trident ROV has arrived and we got a chance last week to test it out! While there is still much to learn, we got more comfortable with navigating the ROV (name coming!) through the kelp forest, no easy task! Dropping it into Whalers Cove, we were impressed with the clarity of image on the tablet/control panel and the world it opened up to us right below the ocean's surface. We are awaiting the arrival of a few more accessories to be able to incorporate the ROV into our K-12 long-distancing learning PORTS program and share Live!, the kelp forest of Point Lobos, one of the oldest marine reserves in the nation.

In the photo, we have our friend Alec Taylor from WWF-UK, Daniel Williford, CA State Park Interpreter at Point Lobos, and Leandra Lopez, Tech/Program Manager, MPA Collaborative Network, test-running the new technology. Alec was here to learn about what California is doing in the way of ocean protection, and this was one of his learning stops along the way. Leandra was on hand to lend her experience and a few needed parts to make this happen. The Point Lobos Kelp Forest PORTS Program is kicking off another school year, this time with the added bonus of an underwater camera!


Congrats on the ROV. I am very intrigued about your live streaming to schools. That’s a great idea. Could you share mor info with me regarding this? I would be very interested in implementing it here in México. Looking forward to reading through the rest of your posts.

Just off the phone with colleagues from our MPA Collaborative in Monterey County, discussing ideas and protocols we'd like to implement when the Trident ROV arrives. We are all excited for its arrival and to be able to share the amazing underwater world with students from California and beyond. Serendipity plays a huge role in what is discovered underwater and the following video attests to this. Taken a little while back with a GoPro HERO 4 attached to a PVC pipe and tethered to a cord while sitting on a kayak. It wasn't until I got back to land that I saw the footage I captured. Looking forward to what we'll discover with the Trident!

In anticipation of the arrival of the Trident, I captured some underwater footage of a sea nettle floating about along the outer edge of Whalers Cove. Taken with a GoPro HERO 5, I quickly captured this footage before a PORTS program. Then moments later, connected to a classroom with an iPad, the students got a to see this jelly as I held the tablet right above the ocean's surface. The students voices were full of excitement as they witnessed this curious and charismatic invertebrate in its natural and almost other-worldly home. Being able to stream live into classrooms from inside the giant kelp forest of Point Lobos will bring our program to another level!

Yes, their tentacles are loaded with stinging cells for paralyzing its prey before eating it, and will leave a mean rash and lots of pain (though not known to be deadly) to any human handler. I saw at least 6 of these scattered about the outer cove.

World Oceans Day! At Point Lobos SNR, we celebrated with a couple of long-distance learning programs live from the Whalers Cove giant kelp forest. In all, about 100 students from San Diego County and New York got an opportunity to spend part of their day on a virtual mellow kayak adventure at Point Lobos. Check out this collage of some of the protected life found right here in the Point Lobos kelp forest.


California Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) make up the largest continuous network aimed at safeguarding our incredible and unique coastline. Check out this film made by our friends at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife highlighting not only the beauty of California's coastline, its iconic beaches and underwater wilderness, but what some people are doing to protect these coastal resources. Mid-way through the film, keep an eye out for the Point Lobos Kelp Forest PORTS Program, providing a peek into our fun and educational learning opportunity. This film provides the viewer insight into what MPA's are all about testifying to the interconnections of life and how the ocean plays a role in so many peoples lives.

Our Expedition has gone LIVE on the Open Explorer National Geographic site! Another step closer to exploring the giant kelp forest and raising ocean awareness to our next generation of stewards. I hope we receive many followers! Here is some footage from Whalers Cove at Point Lobos taken with a GoPro HERO 5 that provides a peek into what the giant kelp forest of Point Lobos holds. Imagine this scenario streaming live into classrooms worldwide!

This is VERY exciting - what a great topic and Interpreter!

Expedition Background

The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve PORTS Program started in Spring 2016. This live-streaming kayak-based program focuses on the giant kelp forest marine protected area of the Reserve and connects K12 classrooms from California and beyond to this mysterious and hidden world. Two years later, more that 600 programs reaching over 18,000 students have been delivered.

We have not yet received our Trident ROV but are ready to go. Check out our goals for the program!

Not only is the long-term program goal of live, underwater videoconferencing into classrooms being met, but several other goals will be met by the Point Lobos PORTS Project including:

• Interpreter at Point Lobos SMR will be able to do livestreaming broadcasts several social media platforms including Periscope and Facebook Live.

• Will provide relevant kelp forest ecosystem video for later use in the Monterey District for CA State Parks and MPA region.

• Could be used to monitor the health and diversity of the kelp forest ecosystem at Point Lobos SMR.

• Provide footage for promotional videos celebrating the oldest MPA in California and what almost 60 years of marine protection looks like.

• Will be used for “careers in state parks” events to celebrate the great things our resource scientists, lifeguards, and other do in protecting our MPAs.

We have all the elements to make this expedition an exciting success: a well-protected kelp forest ecosystem and access to students from California and the rest of the world! With oceans covering most of our planet, the more students learn and experience it, the more they can become a voice and advocate for it.


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