Crashing surf, salty air, and sandy beaches will probably be the first things that grab your attention on a visit to the ocean along California’s gorgeous central coast. However, take a moment to consider what grows beneath the surface of all that seawater, and you will find that seaweed in its many forms is pretty amazing as well.
Teaching people about seaweed and its numerous health and self-care benefits is the goal of the seaweed foraging tours offered by Kelpful, a San Luis Obispo-based company that conducts tours near the beach town of Cayucos.
I’ve always been fascinated by the mounds of feathery kelp and the squishy green air bladders that can be found along the beach and in tidepools in many parts of the Central Coast. As a lover of seaweed in the form of nori (for sushi) and Japanese seaweed salad, I’ve had a healthy interest in seaweed as a food source as well.
So, as I planned my recent road trip to the California Central Coast, I was excited to learn that there was a tour that teaches participants how to find and sustainably harvest their seaweed. I couldn’t wait to meet up with Kelpful along the Estero Bluffs to take part in one of their seaweed foraging tours. I was hosted on the tour by Kelpful and the Highway 1 Road Trip, but my views are my own.
I found the tour to be a wonderful way to get into the sea in an educational setting and I learned so much about the marine algae that are known as seaweed.
Here are seven reasons to add a seaweed foraging tour to your trip to California’s Central Coast.
1. The Up-Close Ocean Experience
Although I enjoy relaxing on the beach and taking long walks in the sand as much as any ocean lover, there is also a lot to be said about getting into the sea with a purpose.
Before you head out, you should know that you likely will get somewhat wet on a seaweed foraging tour. My tour took a steep path from the bluffs down to the beach and passed through tidepools to get to spots where there were large deposits of seaweed in the sand. Kelpful recommends that tour participants wear water shoes, rain boots, or other shoes that they don’t mind getting wet.
I loved that the tour focused on more than just seaweed. I took the tour with Kelpful co-founder Jules Marsh, and as we walked along the bluffs, she offered information on the environmental conditions of the area that is home to octopus, seals, and otters, along with a wealth of information about seaweed.
2. A New Perspective On The Bounty Of The Sea
From the tour, I learned that there are more than 20,000 species of algae (seaweed) that are more nutrient-dense than most terrestrial plants. The tour takes you through the intertidal zone and helps you identify some of the popular varieties of seaweed.
On my tour, Jules found a sprig of pretty green sea lettuce, which had a chewy texture and a salty flavor. We also found many strands of feather boa kelp and air bladder “floaties” that help to keep the seaweed suspended in the water. The tour also sometimes comes across species that have flavor profiles similar to truffles and shallots. Nori is perhaps the most well-known seaweed from its use in sushi and that is another variety that can sometimes be found on the tour.
3. Lessons About The Future Of Food
Jules started the tour by noting that through her research, she has come to believe that seaweed is the future of food. With a population that is growing at an exponential rate, she said, “We don’t have enough land, we don’t have enough water to be able to farm enough animals to keep up with the level we’re at, and to water enough crops. We’re going to be facing some big challenges.”
In addition, she said climate change is bringing natural disasters at a faster rate and in more intense situations. Pointing out that seaweed farming, or “aquaculture,” doesn’t require any additional water, but just space in the ocean, Jules said the environmental impacts are close to none, and there are ways to mitigate any concerns that do exist.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls seaweed farming “the fastest-growing aquaculture sector” and one that offers a range of benefits for farmers, communities, and the environment. According to NOAA’s website, seaweed farming has taken off in recent years in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. “Farmers grow various types of seaweed — including dulse, bull kelp, ribbon kelp, and sugar kelp — that are used in sushi, salsas, sauces, salads, seasonings, and other food products,” says the website.
4. The Health Benefits Of Seaweed
When it comes to nutrition, seaweed is a bit of a star. It is known to be low in carbohydrates and calories while being high in fiber and proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
Along with being super nutritious, Jules said seaweed offers other health benefits as well. Among the products that Kelpful produces is an immunity broth mix that can be brewed into a sipping broth. Jules told me that she drinks the sipping broth daily because of the anti-inflammatory qualities in seaweed. During the winter farmers markets when the weather can be chilly and gray, Jules said Kelpful’s sipping broth has been a hit with people looking for a warm, healthy drink.
5. Samples Of Seaweed Seasonings And Snacks
Kelpful offers several edible products, including seasonings, snacks, and broth mixes. The seasonings range from sea sprinkles that contain a tasty mix of sesame seeds, seaweed, sea salt, and toasted sesame oil, to spicy sea sprinkles that add organic chili flakes to the mix.
Another popular product is Kelpful’s wildfire popcorn, which is seasoned with minced onion, roasted garlic, smoked sea salt, seaweed, rosemary, thyme, and citrus olive oil.
Along with edible products, Kelpful offers a range of self-care products, such as a kelp citrus bath bomb and kelp face masks.
As a part of the tour, participants are treated to some delicious Kelpful snacks.
6. Tips For Foraging Seaweed On Your Own
For people who want to get out on the California Coast and harvest their seaweed, there are several things to keep in mind. I learned on the tour that foragers are allowed to harvest up to 10 pounds per day per person. That is a total wet-weight limit, including all varieties.
Jules cautioned against harvesting endangered or protected species and noted that foragers should leave the “holdfast,” the gnarled root-like section of the seaweed that attaches to rocks. More information on what to take and what to leave is available here.
Low tide is the best time to go out and rocky tide pool areas tend to be where seaweed likes to grow. Foragers should wear good water shoes that have a good grip because the terrain can be treacherous.
7. The Gorgeous Ocean Views
Kelpful conducts its seaweed foraging tours in the rugged terrain of the Estero Bluffs State Park, about two miles northwest of Cayucos. It is a hauntingly beautiful area with jagged rocks jutting out of the water and tidepools forming as the tide goes out.
Of course, you can also explore the bluffs on your own, but going on a tour offers context to the area that is known not just for its plentiful seaweed, but for its diverse marine life and sea birds.
Pro Tip: For visitors to California who want to take their seaweed education to another level, there is an annual California Seaweed Festival. The third annual festival took place in the San Francisco Bay Area in October 2022. More information about future events can be found on the festival’s website.