How to Spearfish in Kelp
Words by Eric Anderson (@eric_janderson) | Images by Aiden Brown (@aiden__brown)
It grows fast and can get really thick. How the hell do you dive in that stuff?
Well, let me tell you there are some techniques to navigating these fast-growing algae. Macrocystis Pyrifera or Giant Kelp is common along the coast of the North Eastern Pacific of California and in Southern oceans around South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In ideal conditions of summer sun and cold waters, giant kelp can grow upwards of eighteen inches a day.
A kelp forest can look very different depending on the reef structure and age of the kelp bed. Kelp connects to reef structure or rocks with a holdfast, a system of foothold ‘roots’ that grab hold tight, for the kelp stalks and fronds to grow all the way to the surface. When a kelp bed gets a thick system of stalks and grows to the point the kelp can lay flat on the surface, the kelp bed can be very thick and create a twelve-plus inch mat on the surface. Sometimes the kelp is so thick you could probably walk across it if you were relatively lightweight (I am not relatively lightweight and would never try this :))
Techniques to dive in kelp come with practice and experience. The first step is to be comfortable and calm. Of course, this is critical in diving in general but much more so when you feel like the ocean is closing in on you. It can feel very claustrophobic with your head, shoulders, and body floating on the surface surrounded by kelp. Not to mention a mask, snorkel, weight belt, fins, etc. to potentially get stuck and caught up in the kelp. Remember this, if you do get caught by kelp on your descent, ascent, or on the surface do not move quickly; you need to slow down. Slow your movements and identify the kelp stalk on your head, mask, foot, or elsewhere and grab the kelp in both hands, and use a quick snapping pull (like snapping a belt), and more often than not it should rip apart easily. If it doesn’t, make a single wrap in each hand and try again. Pull hard! If this doesn’t work, get out your dive knife and go to work. The number one rule is to not panic and keep in mind kelp can be snapped in between two fingers. Stay calm and rip it apart!
Once you’re comfortable in the kelp and ready to start making your dive, there are a few tips that can help make this a productive and efficient process. First, keep a low horizontal profile. Think about your snorkel placement. Having a snorkel dangle of the left or right side of your head, in my opinion, is a recipe to get tangled or have your snorkel ripped off your mask. I prefer to keep my snorkel attached to the back of my mask strap. This way when I make a dive my snorkel lays flat against my left should/neck area and on the ascent lays flat again against me. When I surface, I’m able to pop my snorkel in my mouth and only expose the back of my head and mask strap to the surface for my breathe up. Depending on what you’re hunting, remaining stealthy and quiet on the surface is critical. Popping up through the kelp, splashing around, and getting tangled does no one any good, and the fish will laugh at you. Remain stealthy and quiet!
When you begin your duck dive, leg placement is key. If the kelp is sparse and few and far between, this is not as big of an issue. If the kelp is really thick, there is a technique I use. Placing both legs against the kelp on the surface, I begin my dive with a quick bend at the waist forward and one hand pull down. This will clear me from the surface and the kelp to make my first kick under the canopy. For a straight efficient dive, use the kelp stalk like a dive line to make it to the bottom. Once down, it’s always fun to lay on your back and admire the great kelp forest before hunting its inhabitants.
Once you’re ready for your ascent, there is a great technique to clear the kelp and make room for your head and mask. As I get close to the surface, I use my left arm at a 45-degree angle in front of me, from left to right, and place my left hand to the right of my head and mask. Once my left-hand breaks the surface, I sweep the kelp from right to left with my left arm and clear a small hole. This allows me to pop the back of my head and snorkel in a small clearing, unobstructed. It takes practice but it can be done!
There are many techniques to diving in kelp and these are a few that really help me. What I’ve seen and learned is that it takes practice time and time again to perfect diving in thick kelp. It can be a frustrating mess if you move quickly, get frustrated, and do not remain calm. If you’re concerned with kelp, go out slick without any spearing gear. Get used to it and practice, introduce one piece of gear at a time if you have to. It’s always a bummer to see a new diver get frustrated and give up because the kelp is too great a challenge.
Lastly, enjoy the kelp forest! This is a living ecosystem that deserves nothing but our utmost respect.
– Eric Anderson
- Connect with Eric on Instagram @eric_janderson
- Connect with Aiden on Instagram @aiden__brown
- Listen to Eric’s interview on the Noob Spearo Podcast (episode 149) | Urchin Barrens, GWS and Tourniquets!