Two best friends explore an ocean forest.
Swooping like birds, Tara Smith and Sara Wickham glide through a swaying forest 20 feet under the sea. Scuba diving for the first time, the girls, both of Monterey, California, weave in and out of giant kelp plants off California's Catalina island.
Kelp plants are towering seaweeds that grow in cool, coastal waters. The plants grip rocks on the ocean floor and stretch up toward the sun, forming a floating canopy at the water's surface. Tiny gas-filled "bladders" keep the slimy plants upright to soak up the sunlight. "They remind me of groves of trees," says Tara, 13.
From the ocean floor to the canopy, thousands of creatures live, hide, and hunt in the kelp forest. The California sea hare captivates the girls. "It's fat and squishy--but cute," says Sara, 13.
The girls also spy sea snails, a yellowish-orange sea star, prickly sea urchins, and playful otters.
Fish dart in and out of the kelp.
"They're really interested in us," Tara says. Neon-orange garibaldis are easy to spot, but giant kelpfish, which are the same color as kelp, play hide-and-seek.
"When I was a little kid, I was crushed when I found out the movie The Little Mermaid wasn't real," Sara says. "But this underwater forest made it seem like the movie could be real--even if we didn't see any mermaids!"
MAY WE KELP YOU?
* Sea otters wrap themselves in kelp to keep from drifting away while they sleep.
* Giant kelp can sprout 2 feet a day and grow as tall as a 20-story building.
* Kelp is added to many everyday items such as ice cream, toothpaste. medicines, and paper.
* Kelp farmers "mow" the ocean with specially rigged ships that cut only the top few feet off the plants.