The Underwater Forest

Study seaweed and understand the growth and harvest of these algae within shoreline communities, and the dangers faced due to natural and man-made forces.

| August 2018

  • Cyanobacteria were the first living things and they live in water and manufacture their own food from sunlight. They used to be called blue-green algae because of this miraculous ability to turn sunlight, mixed with carbon dioxide and water, into food, which is the prime occupation of algae and land plants.
    Photo by Getty/chayanan
  • Seaweeds are algae, a word of Latin origin that once implied a primal ooze, a genesis of original and elemental stuff.
    Photo by Getty/inusuke
  • The long fronds of the knotted wrack stand at full length in a high tide.
    Photo by Getty/photoshopped
  • Marine algae, both the one-celled phytoplankton floating in the oceans today and the seaweeds anchored to our shores, and also seaweeds that float free, such as some species of Sargassum, supply the atmosphere of the earth with at least half its oxygen, which is the air we breathe.
    Photo by Getty/shakzu
  • Photo of Susan Hand Shetterly, author of "Seaweed Chronicles A World at the Water's Edge"
    Photo by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • “Seaweed Chronicles” by Susan Hand Shetterly teaches readers about seaweed, using stories of the growth and harvesting of the essential organism.
    Cover courtesy Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Seaweed Chronicles (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) by Susan Hand Shetterly, teaches readers about the growth and harvesting of the essential organism seaweed.  Through the use of stories and descriptions, readers can experience what it is like growing up on the shores of the Gulf of Maine and walking along the shoreline learning about the organisms that live within the algae seaweeds.

When my children were small, I took them to the shore. It would be low tide, and we walked over the pebbly mud and parted the seaweed strands, the bladder wracks and the knotted wracks attached to the big rocks that the glacier had dragged with it from miles away. We peered beneath the seaweeds. The outer layers had dried in the air, but the under layers held a briny wetness that made the creatures we found within especially bright: starfish; the egg capsules of the dog whelks, small sea snails whose eggs look like tiny Greek amphora; green crabs as new and small as my children’s fingernails; young green sea urchins; limpets; sideways-swimming scuds; yellow periwinkles; sometimes a hermit crab or a sea anemone.

It seemed right somehow to be bringing young and growing children to the edge of the bay where life had evolved so far back in time that it was hardly imaginable, as if this place with its seaweeds were the proof we needed that we had come from a world of water and that everything might have looked, at one time, something like this.

When we are children, our psyches tend to become imprinted on the places we know and love, and for many of us, that edge where water and land meet is one that stays with us all our lives. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe I was offering them exactly this: their home place to imprint upon so that they might go into the larger world with a sense of where they come from, and thus a sense of who they are.



Lifting the seaweeds and finding life beneath them reminded me of the crepe paper balls my sister and I used to find in our Easter baskets when we were young. We would unroll them across the floor of our New York City apartment, where they spilled out treasures wrapped in tissue paper: tin rings with glass stones, and little metal animals that clicked. But these saltwater surprises, sheltering beneath the seaweed at low tide, were better. They were alive. My children and I gazed into a forest, not a tree forest that stretched its branches into the air, but a forest of overlapping, protective fronds, resting like sheaves against the rocks. We were looking for treasures, not noticing then that the real treasure was probably the seaweed itself.

After we left, the tide came back and the various species of seaweeds lifted into the water. The long fronds of the knotted wrack stood at full length in a high tide. The ribbon weeds and the sea lettuce would bend in the water’s pulse. The purple laver and the Irish moss would start to glow as the sun reached them through the polish of the rising water. And the lives within them began to stir. Fish moved over them and into them, feeding. The crabs skimmed down from their low-tide hiding places and scuttled across the bottom. The ducks would come, the mergansers hunting fish and crabs, the black ducks puddle-dunking in the shallows for snails and clam worms, and the elegant female eider ducks escorting their buoyant ducklings.

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