Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#335: What Good Is Kelp Anyway?

Last week I wrote about the important role southern California's giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) played in winning World War I. Most of my readers, which tend to be left leaners like myself, may not purchase much gunpowder... despite the run on ammunition during the current economic crisis. Of course those who buy veggies in their grocery stores may benefit from kelp's use as a component in fertilizer, although other sources are now more commonly used in its place. However, relatively few may be aware that they probably use products every day that are linked to giant kelp or other marine algae! Most of these are based on sodium alginate, a derivative of kelp, or carrageenan which comes from red algae. It is very eye opening to learn how much we humans have depended on these marine algae in the past. Let's take a look at a day in the life of Dr. Bill as an example...

When I woke up at 6:00 am, I immediately took a hot shower and washed my hair with shampoo... which contains kelp derivatives. I then took my prescription medicine, and some pharmaceuticals also involve... you guessed it! I brushed my teeth with toothpaste containing... sodium alginates. I thought about improving the look of my condo walls with paint containing... kelp, but I wisely deferred that onerous task to "manana" and sat down at the computer to drink my coffee (no kelp to my knowledge since I don't use dairy) and write this column on my computer (another kelp free product). Other than a banana and orange juice, I don't eat breakfast so I had little kelp during the morning. However, I spent a long time editing my kelp footage for the next "Munching & Mating in the Macrocystis" cable TV episode, making up for its relative absence in my early morning routine.

Later in the day my growling stomach demanded sustenance, so I decided to fix some munchies of my own! Of course I eat healthy (NOT) and fixed a bowl of canned soup... containing kelp. A nice salad with thousand island dressing contained... you guessed it, sodium alginate... as did the canned black and garbonzo beans I put in it. However, I did use lettuce rather than crunchy kelp blades as the greens. The cottage cheese I snacked on was also "loaded" with kelp. Back in my hippy dippy trippy days I used to make kelp muffins, substituting dried and ground kelp for half the flour in my recipe. However, I'm too busy (er, lazy?) to make things from scratch these days.

I always take a break in the afternoon to enjoy our southern California weather, so I walked down to the dive park to look at... the kelp beds. That was strictly an aesthetic experience since I didn't eat any. On occasion I drive the Dr. Bill Mobile golf cart down, and the oil in the engine block may also contain some kelp! To the best of my knowledge gasoline does not. However, I have written in the past about using Sargassum filicinum, the obnoxious Asian kelp that has invaded our waters over the past few years, as a fuel source for my vehicle. Yes, it can be done! We can free Catalina from OPEC's grip, not to mention that of Exxon-Mobil and the other oil companies, by using these non-native kelps as an energy source!

My walk left me hungry again so I stopped off at Vons to get a few things for dinner. What's on the menu? Why kelp bass, of course, thanks to a local fisherman friend of mine. Indirectly it contains "kelp" since many of the critters that species feeds on have kelp as the basis of their food chains. The tartar sauce I bought to put on it has some kelp in it. The frozen onion rings do as well. I decided to splurge on some kelp-based green onion dip for my kelp-less chips. Then it came time to choose my favorite item on the dinner menu... desert (I got that from my father). Let's see... ice cream? cheesecake? a cake mix with frosting? All may contain kelp derivatives (and a little sugar tossed in as well).

Now those who know me realize that I've been a dateless wonder since I have yet to find my ultimate "mermaid" and dive buddy (where else but in the kelp forest!). However, let's pretend for a moment that I actually have a date tonight. Why shortly before I pick up her up (and probably long after I arrive) she would be preparing herself with her favorite "maintenance" products like skin creams, cosmetics and lipstick... all of which may contain kelp. Wait a minute... I prefer the natural look, so I'll choose a woman who has been swimming in the kelp in her wetsuit rather than making herself up with it! Of course since my "date" was strictly imaginary, I'll actually find myself all alone tonight. Perhaps I'll choose man's favorite "maintenance" product made with kelp... beer... followed by more beer! I could drown my sorrows that way, but if I kept it up I'd have to buy a larger wetsuit! Besides, I generally prefer merlot which to the best of my knowledge is kelp-less (unless you count the fertilizer used in the vineyards!).

I don't want to be entirely anthropocentric in discussing the "value" of kelp. Certainly it has an economic "value" to humans given its use in such everyday products. However, this value is declining as researchers find synthetic compounds to replace the naturally occurring sodium alginate in giant kelp. Macrocystis also has "value" to humans who enjoy fishing our waters or diving beneath them to enjoy the incredible diversity of these unique ecosystems. In my mind the most important "value" of our kelp forests does not relate to what we humans derive from them. Scientists have said that some 300 species of algae and marine plants, and another 800 species of fish, marine mammals and invertebrates live within the kelp forest.

It is this role of kelp as home and food for these species that must also be weighed when we discuss its intrinsic, non-human "value." After all, we must learn to coexist with the millions of other species on our planet if we are to survive... just as we need to peacefully coexist with the residents of other planets as highlighted in the premiere of the latest Star Trek movie playing in our own Avalon Theatre this week. Oh, I was even invited to dive with Rod Roddenberry, Greg Martin and the Roddenberry Dive Team this weekend... as well as drink a little kelp-free Perrier Jouet with them the night before. As Spock said, "Dif-tor heh smusma" (live long and prosper)! Hmmm, I doubt there is any kelp on the Vulcan planet a mere 16 light years away since it is covered in deserts and lava fields.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Basic kelp-based personal and home maintenance products; the many foods that may contain kelp-derived sodium alginates;
skin creams, cosmetics, lipstick and other female maintenance products;
and the ultimate kelp-based maintenance product for males of the human species! .

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia