Our kelp forests are largely unobserved, but now they are vanishing. To understand why, scientists dive underwater and look down from space. Their research reveals a complex system at risk of collapse.
This story was co-published with Scientific American, Monterey Herald and supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Raimondi explains, “Normally in a kelp forest, these native sea urchin grazers are living down, tucked away in the cracks and crevices because they don’t want to encounter predators. So they’re hidden down in these crevices, and they’re eating drift kelp.”
Drift kelp are the fronds that shed from the living underwater forest. If you’ve ever been to a California beach, you’ve seen them in piles or perhaps jumped out of the water when one brushed past your leg.
The Vanishing Forest
Scientific American / Pulitzer Center / Monterey Herald
Underwater film production is extremely expensive, especially when considering the need for professional divers. Even hiring a single diver would exceed our limited budget. Additionally, University of California, Santa Cruz policy prevented non-university divers from using their research vessels, requiring us to hire an additional boat. To overcome these challenges, we decided to utilize drones for filming. We explored the option of using a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and ultimately chose the Qysea FiFish V6 due to its 4K camera, diving capabilities, and RAW file format. While a professional diver-operated camera would have provided better footage, the drone allowed us to easily follow the researchers from the deck of their vessel instead of coordinating from a separate boat.
Our second challenge was to go beyond standard science reporting and delve into the epistemology of climate and ecological research.
Scientists, researchers, and academics served as excellent subjects due to their public listings, published material with sources, and passionate dedication to their specialties. However, they can be cautious in their communication as the language of scientists is often nuanced compared to popular science reporting. An anecdote from Pete Raimondi highlighted the pitfalls of science communication. When asked about the possibility of radioactivity from Fukushima causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, Raimondi responded in a scientific manner, stating that the hypothesis couldn’t be ruled out. This response, although cautious, led to widespread concern and reporting linking Fukushima to the syndrome. Raimondi spent months clarifying that Fukushima was not a possible cause. This incident exemplifies the challenge of reporting on ongoing research, where scientists speak in hypothetical terms while headlines present absolutes. Therefore, understanding the methods and results of research is crucial and integral to our storytelling approach.