f you’re going to succeed as a species in this world, you need to get three things right: shelter, food, reproduction. Simple. But it’s the variety of ways in which living organisms go about meeting these three basic needs that gives rise to the mind-blowing diversity of life on the planet—all the shapes and colors and textures that living things come in.
So take marine algae—otherwise known as seaweed … please. That common name itself is sadly indicative of the level of respect we show these hardy—and beautiful—organisms. I’ll speak for myself. At local beaches, I usually scan the horizon for whales, peer at the water closer in for sea ducks and harbor seals, and look for sandpipers along the shore. But until recently, I’ve given short shrift to the seaweed washed up at the surf line.
But then I came across the images of San Francisco artist Josie Iselin in her book An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed and my eyes were opened. (Don’t you love it when that happens?)
Shortly thereafter I was on a beach in Mendocino and dug into several piles of washed-up seaweed. With my new knowledge and a little patience I was able to identify five distinct species all tumbled together. And I was able to see the structural differences between the various seaweeds as distinct adaptive strategies for the necessities of survival in the harsh ocean environment: the need for one end to have the tensile strength to stay attached to a substrate in the constantly moving ocean water while another part is buoyant enough to remain near the surface for photosynthesis. Similar diversity was also on display at low tide on the rocky marine terrace below the Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the San Mateo coast. Here in the intertidal zone, there’s a profusion of rock-hugging seaweeds that have to survive periods of the day totally submerged in water, periods when they’re battered by the waves, and periods when they’re high and almost dry. There were the bristly low-growing brown mats of “Brillo pad” seaweed (Endocladia muricata), the rough reddish blades of “Turkish towels” (Chondracanthus exasperatus), the slimy green iridescent sheets of Mazzaella, the fine articulated “branches” of red coralline algae, and many others. All competing for space on the rocks where they are bathed twice a day in the nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific. Same place, same conditions, but completely different shapes and textures evolved to take advantage of that place and those conditions. So functional. And yet, at the same time, so beautiful.
Having our eyes opened to the “functional beauty” of local nature—from lichens to seaweeds to poppies to redwoods—is what we’ve enjoyed doing at Bay Nature for 14 years now. If you’ve enjoyed this as well, we’d like to invite you to celebrate those 14 years of sharing nature’s beauty at our upcoming annual awards dinner on Sunday, March 22 in Oakland. We’ll be honoring three of our local conservation heroes and enjoying Josie Iselin’s eye-opening presentation on the beauty and diversity of California seaweed. Find out about our award recipients and the event at