(first posted Feb. 2005) After the pounding 2-hour trip across the Channel on the 26-ft “Magic,” we anchor at Frenchy’s Cove and quickly don scuba gear. The water is so clear we see the gray silty bottom and, yes, even a float at one end of the transect Jessie Altstatt set up 2 years ago. Jessie, Penny Owens, Brian Hall and I are here to check on eelgrass that Jessie and many Santa Barbara Channelkeeper volunteers have replanted here. Once, the bottom of this cove was covered with eelgrass, but a freak boom in white sea urchins in the mid 1980′s wiped it out. Seeking to restore the eelgrass bed, Chanelkeeper first set plants here in spring of 2002 and has been returning nearly every month since to check on them.
Eelgrass beds may be important nurseries for fish and other marine
creatures, and in fact are protected by law as Essential Fish Habitat. Eelgrass is not an alga, but is a flowering plant (one of only 4 marine plant species in our region); as you might imagine, pollination is difficult underwater and seeds rarely germinate. Like mint or iris, eelgrass spreads via rhizomes: tough roots from which genetically-identical individual shoots and leaves sprout. Eelgrass may spread to other areas via individual plants torn up by storms, a few of which might land in favorable habitat.
Last year, with the plan to create a new patch of eelgrass, we drove the Magic to Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz and (with permission from several agencies including Fish and Game and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary) uprooted 100 plants. Using dive knives, we cut plants with as much rhizome as possible from the dense mat of rhizomes under the sand. We shoved the plants into goody bags before they could float off. The hard work reminded me of how I’d strained my back tearing up mint roots in a home herb garden. We then drove to Frenchy’s and replanted them on the next dive, fastening them to the seabed with inverted U’s of coathanger (actually, baling wire). Over the years, Channelkeeper volunteers tried different planting patterns: a long row (marked by the transect and floats), open circles, and dense patches. For this new bed, we spaced the plants evenly about a foot apart in a grid.
Now, a year later, we roll off the Magic. Jessie and Penny carry bags of plastic spoons, Brian and I cameras. At 35 ft the bottom is beige silt, covered with brittle stars. Curious pikeblennies peer from empty worm tubes. It’s rare to see these Orangethroat Pikeblennies north of Mexican waters, and it was a special treat on this dive. We find 3 lonely eelgrass plants, now sagging under the weight of brittle stars, the only remnant of the hundreds planted along the transect. Brian and I shoot photos and then follow Jessie and Penny toward shallower water.
In 20 ft the replanted eelgrass is flourishing. Some of the denser beds now have several times the 100 individuals originally planted. New patches are springing up nearby. Jessie and Penny count them by placing a spoon next to each plant, then gathering the spoons and arranging them in rows: mathematics is harder under water and every little bit helps! They run out of spoons: too many plants to count exactly. I see a juvenile giant kelpfish in one small clump, with another trying to drive it away. A third juvenile keeps watch from a nearby clump. Brian counts seven sarcastic fringeheads; perhaps objecting to the spoon Penny placed nearby, one bites her thumb and won’t let go. Predatory crabs lurk in the shade. Tiny snails cover many blades: they are microcarnivores, cleaning the blades of bryozoans and other life growing on them. The replanted eelgrass is flourishing, and creating a welcome home for a host of young marine creatures.
Channelkeeper is again accepting applications for volunteer divers- email jessie @ sbck.org if you are interested.