In South Africa and Namibia, we learn about the importance of current and future sea forests. How can they help humanity become more sustainable?

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Anyone who is fascinated by the sea and the life in it could hardly ignore the documentary, My Octopus Teacher. It shows how filmmaker Craig Foster created a special bond with an octopus and displays the animal’s unique intelligence and talents. The story takes place in a kelp sea forest in the cold waters around Cape Town, around the corner from where the documentary team is based. Their name, Sea Change Project, suggests a clear mission and so, curious to know which change they aspire to achieve, we invite them aboard. Danielle Ehrlich, the project’s communication strategist, accepts and joins us at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront Marina.

Cold Water Coral

My Octopus Teacher is set in a forest”, Danielle begins. “An underwater sea forest of kelp, that is. Kelp thrives in cold sea water, which we have in abundance here thanks to the nutrient-rich Benguela ocean current that comes directly from Antarctica”, she explains. “The sea forest forms the basis for all other life, just like forests on land. It’s a breeding ground and shelter for a plethora of animals, including predators. It bursts with biodiversity but also protects the coast against storms. You could say that seaforests have the same function as coral reefs in the tropics.”

“Our goal is to protect the more than 1,000 kilometer stretch of sea forest along the coast. We call the area Great African Seaforest”, Danielle continues. “Of course, we hope the catchy name becomes a household name, such as the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon rainforest”, she smiles.

The group lobbies for the establishment of marine reserves and campaigns against the main threats to oceanic life: overfishing, pollution, and climate breakdown. Their main tool is storytelling through films, books, and exhibitions. Their documentaries use beautiful images and science-based narratives to appeal to viewers’ emotions and evoke a sense of connection between humankind and nature. “Hope is our message”, Danielle reveals, “because beautiful things can be achieved through regenerating, rewilding, and restoring seaforests.”

These are objectives that we fully support, of course. As we say goodbye to Danielle, we wonder if we can find an initiative involving seaforests being given a helping hand.

 Our search leads to Namibia, so we leave Cape Town and sail north along the Great African Seaforest, where we plan to meet the team at Kelp Blue. This organization has recently started to “rewild the ocean”, so they seem to be the perfect people to visit. In transit, we are grateful to the Benguela sea current for giving us an extra knot of speed in the right direction. At the same time, we experience first-hand how cold the sea water is. While it provides perfect conditions for the seaforests below and the many seals accompanying us, we have to take out our thermal clothing and regularly sail through dense fog.

Rewilding the Ocean

Shortly after we arrive in Lüderitz, we are welcomed by the team of Kelp Blue. Co-founder Daniel Hooft explains how the company got started: “After a career at Shell, I founded Kelp Blue together with Caroline Slootweg in 2019. Our goal was to plant kelp forests in places where there are none now, for example in deep water or in places where the seabed is sandy and offers too little support for kelp roots. This is how we aim to rewild the ocean and, at the same time, grow a useful product”, he explains.

He saw a business model: Once harvested, kelp could be turned into an agricultural biostimulant, or used in pharmaceuticals, food, even as a bio-plastic. At the same time, growing it in new areas would increase biodiversity .

Stimulating Organic Farming

“Kelp is a great raw material for many end products, from food to bioplastics”, Daniel tells us. “We currently see the best opportunities in the market for biostimulants. These contain the kelp’s valuable nutrients and help farmers make the transition to organic farming. If farmers use biostimulants made of kelp, they need much less synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.” We nod in agreement, sharing our own experience in New Zealand when we visited AgriSea, a family business that has had great success with kelp biostimulants for many years. These stimulants lead to juicy grasses, healthy dairy cows, perfect wine grapes, and even tastier and longer lasting kiwi fruits. But while AgriSea collects kelp from beaches, Daniel wants to provide a lasting source of kelp by planting and growing it in the sea.

The Right Kelp

“Why is Namibia a great place to grow kelp?” we ask Daniel. “Namibia is an ideal place for large-scale kelp planting because the Benguela ocean current supplies a continuous and virtually endless supply of nutrients”, he responds. “All types of kelp could grow here, but Giant Kelp – with the scientific name macrocystis pyrifera – is the most suitable for us. The species can reach a height of 50 meters, grows faster than bamboo, and lives to an old age. These features allow us to regularly harvest a few meters at the top. The plant will then grow back on its own. Another advantage of these plants is that they remove CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Sounds impressive, but how do you start such a kelp forest, we wonder? Daniel smiles: “We are still experimenting to find the best way, but the first results are very promising”. We can’t wait to take a look behind the scenes.

Helping Kelp

Ferdi Knoester, Operations Lead Lüderitz, gives us an extensive tour of the office and lab. He also takes time to explain how kelp grows. “Giant Kelp reproduces with spores, a kind of seed. We grow them here in the lab on a piece of fabric, which we put in a bottle with sea water so the spores can develop. When the spores have grown into mini kelp plants, we wrap the fabric cloths around a piece of rope that we cast into the sea, held in place by a bottom weight”.

To see it in practice, we join an expedition on to a bay where the first kelp forest is being planted. While snorkeling we see how Kelp Blue’s method appears to be quite successful, given how many large kelp plants there are to see. Interns Niels and Bouke are researching biodiversity and enthusiastically report that they saw several fish and a crayfish in the kelp forest today. On earlier visits, they discovered a small shark and a nudie branch. Ferdi, meanwhile, brings up a nice bunch of mussels, which grow on the chain of a marker buoy. “For lunch”, he grins.

Processing Kelp

A few days later, Processing Plant Manager Okke Meijer shows us the factory where the kelp will be processed. “We are just getting started”, Okke says and shows us how the freshly harvested kelp is finely ground in some kind of meat grinder. This is followed by a series setup of mixing-, homogenizing- and filtering machines. “Almost all appliances are standard and come from the food industry”, Okke explains. “We are busy adjusting the machines. The end goal is to concentrate the biostimulants as much as possible”, Okke clarifies at the final machine in the production line. “Naturally we want to transport as little water as possible in our end products”.

More is More

In the weekend, Kelp Blue organizes a barbecue for the whole team at a large, ocean-facing bay. Much to our delight, we are also invited. Over dinner, Daniel confides that the first major customer for biostimulants has already been contracted. He intends to attract more investors to finance his expansion plans. “More is more at Kelp Blue. The more acres of kelp forest we plant, the more we rewild the oceans, the more biodiversity we create, the more biostimulants we can make, the more CO2 we sequester, and the more jobs we create. The next step of scaling-up is to develop a suspension system for deeper water. And we are also working on the development of solar-powered automatic harvesters”, Daniel says. His plans sound grand and if the results from his pilot are a harbinger of what’s to come, they may well be accomplished.

Big Ambitions, Many Benefits

We are impressed by Kelp Blue’s vision, pioneering activities and team-spirit. Large-scale planting of kelp would be great news on many sustainable fronts, with material benefits for humanity. More biodiversity through planted sea forests is also good for fish stocks, while capturing CO2 helps in the fight against climate breakdown. Biostimulants made from harvested kelp can replace artificial fertilizers and pesticides and thereby reduce the use of fossil fuels and make agriculture more organic. Finally, Kelp Blue is helping local people find steady work, which is much needed because fishermen are struggling to make a living. We sincerely hope that they will succeed in realizing their great ambitions. And who knows, once their kelp plants are more established, octopuses will find their way to these new sea forests, too!

[Update October 2023: Kelp Blue has sighted the first baby octopus in their kelp forest in Lüderitz!]

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