Years ago, when travel journalism was a thriving industry, I was a guest on a submersible in southeast Alaska. As I remember it, the submersible was yellow and oval-shaped with windows along each side. Inside, benches lined the space beneath the windows. The idea of traveling underwater without having to get cold or wet sounded like fun and possibly a good subject for a story. But in truth, I was largely underwhelmed. The sights were mainly forests of bull kelp, bobbing and waving in the murky brown water, an equally unimpressive blah-looking fish occasionally darting about.
Too bad fine-art photographer and author Josie Iselin wasn’t along for the ride. Then, I might have learned what I was viewing in those undulating stands of kelp was the very foundation of the nearshore ecology. And while ocean warming was still years in the future, any marine enthusiast could have predicted the threat it might – and has – posed for sea life, including kelp and seaweed.
On May 25, the traveling exhibition, The Curious World of Seaweed, opens at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport, featuring Iselin’s color portraits of seaweed. Seaweed Weekend follows June 2-4, including a panel discussion, cyanotype printing workshop, and seaweed identification/foraging workshop. The exhibit continues at the center through Oct. 1.
We talked with the San Francisco author and photographer about her interest in seaweed and its importance to the environment. Her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you get interested in seaweed?
Iselin: My interest in seaweed comes from a lifelong connection to the ocean. I grew up spending summers in Maine in and on the water. When I moved to California, I started walking my local beach, and I’ve been walking weekly for 30 years. The beach is really my point of departure for thinking about the ocean and what I find at the beach.
I’m a photographer by training. After graduate school, the scanner became my tool of choice, because it allows a directness of capturing an object. In 2009, I was trained to be a docent for one of the great tide-pooling reefs called the Duxbury Reef, and during that training, everyone was talking about the starfish and the critters, but no one was talking about the algae. I held a scrap to the sky and was blown away by the color and knew I had to get it back to my scanner, which is an amazing way to let an object speak for itself.
You’ve published two books on seaweed packed with your images, but these are more than coffee table books, yes?
An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed is a primer because number one, it’s visually driven. You can be a true beginner and become wowed with the imagery, and then you can read the text about the basics of seaweed and become somewhat knowledgeable and build your knowledge. The seaweeds and kelp are so foundationally important to the nearshore ecologies that are so important to all of us.
Oregon State University Press is publishing a paperback reprint of An Ocean Garden next month. When I was writing that book, Rachel Carson’s book The Edge of the Sea was in my ear all the time. Carson is known for Silent Spring, but she wrote three books on the ocean. It’s really good. She was a fricking genius.
The second book is called the The Curious World of Seaweed. It’s a deeper dive into bringing the natural history and the history of the science of seaweed — the taxonomic history — together. There all sorts of compelling stories and pioneering women who furthered our understanding of the oceans, by observing carefully and being curious and then becoming experts in this corner of marine ecology.… I decided to look at 16 iconic kelps or seaweed you and I would find on most of the beaches of California and the Pacific Northwest, B.C., and Alaska.
But not Oregon?
Oregon is different from some places. You have huge expanses of sandy coast, and seaweeds need rocky shores. So, the huge expanses of Oregon Coast that are very sandy are not seaweed or kelp habitat. You don’t have it continuously. You just have it in very particular places: You have all those reefs right off of Yaquina Head. So, you do have the right conditions in this particular part of the coast.
Are the terms seaweed and kelp interchangeable?
Those are generic terms for marine algae. Seaweed and kelp are slightly different. They are the primary producers of the ocean. The seaweeds tend to be closer to shore. They tend to grow in the intertidal zone, although many can grow very deep. The kelps are a subset of the seaweeds, and they are the bigger, more differentiated organisms that make up these forests.
Why are they so important?
They are so foundationally important to the subtidal zone – the deeper ocean where juvenile fish escape from predators, where juvenile salmon acclimate from fresh to salt water, where seals hunt for prey, and where prey hide from predators. It’s so important for creating this three-dimensional habitat. So, both kelps and seaweeds are in this great big umbrella of marine algae.
What’s the future look like for seaweed and kelp?
It can go away. Seaweeds and kelp need cold ocean. They are designed for the nutrient-dense cold waters of the north Pacific. These murky waters are super productive. All this algae sloughs off and makes this algal snow and impenetrable murk, and that is where all these smaller-level organisms — like sea urchins and abalone and snails and limpets — live; they’re all pulling these nutrients out of the water column. I’ve been walking my beach for 30 years and I’ve always had kelp on the beach, and then it went away, and it went away because we had drought. There were no storms to wash it into shore, and these great productive kelp forests disappeared.
Give us a tease about what visitors can expect to see at the exhibit?
Visitors will see an array of vibrant and luminous seaweeds, many layered onto historical imagery from the taxonomic record. Some will be large and others more intimate, and interspersed will be informational panels piquing the visitors’ curiosity to learn more. There will also be fabric panels depicting an amalgam of the seaweeds from the ocean’s edge — light coming through them as they might appear if these seaweeds were encountered when snorkeling in the shallows.
My work is very joyful. It’s bright. It’s light filled. It’s all about this translucent magnificence. I think one of the things that’s really powerful about this exhibit is that not only is it visually intriguing, but I’m also going to have three completely new pieces specifically for this show. A lot of nautical maps have this indication on them for kelp beds that everyone calls “kelp squiggle.” I’ve been searching for these kelp squiggles, and I did a search for historic maps around Oregon that indicate the kelp beds. So, I put together some imagery that’s about what we learned from maps about such an ephemeral thing. I am very excited that they’re there for this exhibit.