Forests of the Ocean: Incredible Kelp

Behind the clear walls of a vast tank in the Two Oceans Aquarium, kelp sways gently from side to side in time with the water. Fish weave placidly through its leathery stems: strange-looking red and white stumpnose, tiny sharks shaped like miniature torpedoes, yellow-barred ‘strepies’ and hefty galjoen. This captivating display is exceptional for more than just its beauty: it is one of only three living kelp exhibits in the world and the sole example on the African continent.

Kelp flourishes in the shallow waters along the southern African coast, but few people realise the importance of this phenomenal sea plant – it is a living ecosystem that helps to protect and sustain a menagerie of sea creatures by providing a food source and a habitat for a diversity of ocean species. It simultaneously acts as a marine purifier by feeding on certain waste products generated by fish. Kelp is also harvested for use in an array of different industries and the high speed at which it grows makes it an extremely sustainable resource.

Four different species of kelp are found off the southern African coast but the most prolific of these is Ecklonia maxima. This ubiquitous ‘sea bamboo’ forms tangled marine forests with hold-fast roots and slippery fronds that float on the surface of the sea. Exposure to natural light is essential for kelp’s survival: like terrestrial vegetation, it obtains nourishment via a process of photosynthesis, absorbing rich nutrients churned up from the ocean floor and converting them into food with the aid of the sun.

The cycle of life continues as kelp moves with the wind and the waves, breaking up into micro-particles that provide food for fish and other sea animals. Some of these creatures, such as southern mullet and Hottentots, live permanently in the shelter that kelp provides; others move in and out of its underwater forests looking for food. Sea bamboo is vital for the survival of several critically endangered species, including the galjoen, South Africa’s national fish, classified as ‘red’ (close to extinction and illegal to buy or sell) by the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI).

Beyond its role as the backbone of a shoreline ecosystem, kelp – and other seaweed – has an array of healing properties, diverse culinary potential and other benefits.

Health benefits:

  • Kelp contains more vitamins and minerals than any other food – a total of 60 trace mineral elements, 13 vitamins and 20 amino acids.
  • It has antioxidant and diuretic properties and has been shown to lower the rate of breast cancer, heart disease, rheumatism, arthritis and infectious diseases.
  • Its high iodine content makes it an effective treatment for hyperthyroidism, while potassium helps to maintain blood pressure.
    It has zero calories.
  • It is an excellent source of fibre and protein.
  • It has a higher calcium content than cow’s milk and beef.
  • Workers in nuclear power stations are given kelp tablets daily as they contain alginic acid, which ‘fixes’ radioactive strontium.

Beauty:

  • Seaweed is also a skin superfood – it is intensively hydrating and anti-inflammatory, making it a potent skin moisturiser, soother and toner.
  • It also has anti-ageing properties and is unusually rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids, making it an excellent anti-bacterial agent.

You can even whip up your own seaweed mask at home using the following ingredients:

½ cup water
1 rooibos tea bag
1 tsp aloe vera gel
1 tsp agar (available at most pharmacies)
1 tsp spirulina powder

Method
Boil water, add all ingredients and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until dissolved. Allow the gel to cool, but apply it to clean dry skin before it solidifies, using a flat foundation brush. Leave on for 5 to 10 minutes then peel off.

Agriculture:

  • Kelp is a powerful plant fertiliser and is used to prevent soil erosion.

Waterproofing:

  • Alginic salts made from crushed kelp are used to waterproof cement and tiles and to seal fine paper.

Stabilising:

  • Kelp is dried and crushed to produce a gel used to stabilise toothpaste, ice-cream, pizza-toppings, beer, jelly, salad dressings, flavoured milk, cosmetics, paint and ink.

Sound:

  • In South Africa, kelp is used to craft vuvuzelas, the popular accessories of soccer fans. The whale crier in the town of Hermanus uses a kelp horn to indicate the presence of whales in the bay.

Cooking:

  • Kelp is valued as a nutritious food source by cultures across the globe.
  • It is incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals, making it one of the healthiest meals on the planet!

The trend of food ‘foraging’ has become increasingly popular in South Africa and kelp, as well as other seaweeds, is among the easiest coastal ingredients to come by in the Cape. Out of over 700 species that grow along South African shores, there is only one that can’t be eaten – acid seaweed, which contains high levels of sulphuric acid that render it toxic.

In order to collect kelp and mussels, you will need a licence, obtainable from any national post office for a fee of R95. This will allow you a daily quota of up to 30 mussels and 10kg of kelp.

To learn the finer arts of coastal harvesting and cookery, it is possible to do a course with local forager extraordinaire, Roshanna Gray (see https://veldandsea.com/). She will teach you about varieties of seaweed, the dos and don’ts of ethical coastal foraging, and how to whip up an array of delicious dishes with the ingredients you gather, from simple nori chips made on the braai to the mouthwatering umami chocolate ice-cream featured below…

Umami Ice-cream

Ingredients:
3 kelp blades/1 handful of Nori leaves, cut up into pieces
¼ cups of water
½ cups of caramel sugar
600ml cream
350g condensed milk
½ cup cocoa/instant coffee

To make the umami syrup:
Bring the water and sugar to the boil. Reduce heat and add seaweed, simmer on a low heat until most of the liquid is gone and the rest is bubbling (roughly half an hour).

To make the ice cream:
Whip up the cream, condensed milk, cocoa and 4 tbs of the umami syrup (in a food processor is best but you can also use a cake mixer or hand whip) until you get stiff peaks of chocolate cream.
Pour into a seal-able container and place in the freezer overnight or until set.

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