#AntarcticAlphabet: K is for kelp

Kelp connects everything, from the Orkneys to the South Shetlands. Seafloor to surface, dark to light. Brown, red, ochre, rust within the grey/blue/white of the Antarctic seas. The simplicity of stipe and stem dancing inside the heart-breaking, never-ending complexity of the wave. And of course, almost mundane, the host of lives inside the heldfast forest and the pelagic rafts of safe havens, nurseries and schools

Kelp is algae, an imperialist, expansionist algae which will outlive cockroaches and make triffids look tame. In the never-never before the last ice age kelp’s march down the west coast of the Americas was halted by equatorial warmth and the currents that washed through today’s Panama. The world grew cold, the isthmus formed and kelp spread. And spread. Kelp got everywhere. It survived the glaciation and draped the coasts so thickly that Darwin ranked it a more important habitat than terrestrial forests. In the cold, bio-restricted waters of Antarctica, still over 90 invertebrate species rely on it.

Krill too, busily swimming up and down the water column, are at the heart of the sea. A single krill weighs maybe two grams: scientists estimate 380 million tons of krill are in southern waters. Each tiny shrimp, if it survives the hunt, may pass a decade gathering in swarms visible from space. Everything eats krill. Blue whales open their vast gullets to swallow millions and small fish eat them one by one. Krill-energy is the silk in the oceanic food-web.

We eat both krill and kelp, as they come or rendered into paste. Krill has become a fad in oils and creams and superfoods. The Antarctic krill fishery takes over 200,000 tonnes of fish every year and growing. As for kelp, from frozen food to pharmaceuticals, we use it everywhere. Charismatic whales are not our only prey.

Fur seals pups play in the kelp forests of South Georgia. They face little competition for krill as whale numbers recover so slowly from our 200-year massacre. Meanwhile kelp, indomitable kelp, harbours invaders in its massive rafts, poised to benefit from warmer waters and ice-free coasts. We know so little and we do so much in our own ceaseless expansion; even if a new, self-inflicted glaciation pushed us down, we too might hope to be back.

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