Towering over the sandy floor, they follow the flow of the ocean, yet stand firm in their place as essential pillars of the ecosystem.

Across the soccer field, past Young Hall’s volleyball court, down the cliffs and into the white-capped waters, in the depths surfed by many PLNU students exist “the redwoods of the ocean,” as OCEANA’s California campaign director and senior scientist Geoff Shester described them.

San Diego is known for its surf and beach culture, but what few know is the exact immensity of San Diego’s marine biodiversity. Off the coast of Point Loma, there’s a six-mile stretch of San Diego kelp forest.

Walter Cho, Ph.D., a marine biologist and professor of biology at PLNU, has studied the ocean for all of his career, specifically the deep sea. Cho shared a bit about the significance of the kelp forest in San Diego.

“Kelp forests are a unique ecosystem with high levels of biodiversity and high levels of productivity,” Cho said. “A healthy kelp forest will help support a really healthy community as well. The kelp forest in Southern California in general has just been described as the best in the entire world. It’s really a unique ecosystem that we have.”

“The kelp forest in Southern California in general has just been described as the best in the entire world. It’s really a unique ecosystem that we have.”

Neighboring the kelp forest, San Diego also has a chiseled network of sea canyons off of La Jolla that attract a variety of sea creatures including multiple species of sharks, dolphins, fish, and more.

“These deep sea canyons basically create really hard substrate,” Cho said. “Animals that live on the seafloor like to live generally broadly in soft sediment – like in sand – or in hard rock to attach to something.”

“These canyons provide that kind of stepping stone where you have all these canyons with exposed rock, where lots of animals can live, but then they can get further out in the deep ocean where there might be seamounds or sea mountains that also have that hard substrate. So, you’re seeing this increasing connectivity that occurs in coastal systems as well as open ocean systems.”

Andrew Nosal, Ph.D., a movement ecologist and associate professor of biology at PLNU, studies the causes and consequences of animal movement. He’s studied both sharks and stingrays in San Diego.

Dr. Andrew Nosal and his class explore biodiversity in the Sunset Cliffs tide pools near PLNU.

“There are over 400 species of shark on the planet today, and we have well over a dozen that live off San Diego,” Nosal said. “Some migrate, or else are abundant during the summer, such as leopard sharks, tope sharks, and white sharks, and others do not, such as horn sharks and swell sharks.”

“All of these species can be found off Sunset Cliffs, but are not known to aggregate (form groups) there as they do farther north off, say, La Jolla.”

The interconnectedness of different organisms and the lengths in which they extend from shallow to deep, scientists like Cho have discovered, extend beyond what was previously believed.

“Especially for deep sea systems that are close to coastal systems, there’s increasing evidence that there’s a lot of communication between coastal populations and even what we would have considered deep sea populations as well,” Cho said. “A lot of what used to have been thought of as endemic to just the deep sea or just the coastal community, the more we explore, we see this animal occurs farther in the deep sea as well, or this deep sea animal actually occurs closer to shore.”

“A lot of it is just limited because it’s really expensive to explore the deep sea, so the more we explore, we’re seeing that these populations of animals may not be so isolated. There might be a lot of connectivity between deeper ocean animals and coastal populations as well.”

Dr. Walter Cho and his class studying the distribution of animals at the San Diego River estuary near Dog Beach in Ocean Beach.

Our human interaction with the ocean has also expanded over the years, but not necessarily with positive effects.

“Scientists are discovering plastics at all depths and all parts of the ocean,” Shester said. “It’s not just on beaches. It’s not just at the surface.”

According to the World Economic Forum, “between 75 and 199 million tons of plastic are currently in our oceans.”

Cho explained it’s hard to say what the exact extent of our actions have been on the ocean, but that’s because we don’t know what the ocean looked like to begin with.

A squat lobster and octopus find shelter under a sponge. Photo c/o Oceana.

“We often talk about something called the shifting baseline syndrome, which is this idea that we can look at a system right now and we can say, ‘Well, this system is very different from what it was 20 years ago. It’s highly degraded, but let’s say we conserve it and protect it and bring it back up to what it was 20 years ago,’” Cho said.

“But, 20 years ago there were people living in San Diego, going to the beach as well, so you’re comparing it to another system that’s already been impacted. What we consider ‘normal’ shifts as the generations change.”

“Some may argue, ‘We don’t even know what a pristine system looks like because we’ve already profoundly impacted the systems around us.’ Trying to figure out your reference system is really hard.”

“Some may argue, ‘We don’t even know what a pristine system looks like because we’ve already profoundly impacted the systems around us.’ Trying to figure out your reference system is really hard.”

Looking at the ocean today, in addition to plastics, human connection to marine life has had even more direct impacts through unsustainable fishing practices, like the use of set gillnets, which are banned in state waters due to their high bycatch rates of whales, porpoises, and other marine mammals. Nothing can be done to stop them outside of the California state’s water line, unless the state legislature steps in.

“Set gillnets can still be used right outside of the state water’s line, outside of the three miles, and can be used near many of those offshore islands, mounts, and banks,” Shester said. “Everywhere that they have been banned, you’ve seen dramatic recoveries in sensitive species. Soup fin sharks, white sea bass, giant sea bass that were depleted, when they banned the gillnets, in the spots they were banned, they bounced back. Right outside of the three mile line, they’re still being used.”

Drs. Walter Cho and Andrew Nosal study the mysteries of the sea, including those right off the coast of San Diego.

“Set gillnets can still be used right outside

of the state water’s line, outside of the

three miles, and can be used near many

of those offshore islands, mounts and banks.”

Shester said there used to be 800 permits or so, now they’re down to about 90 permits and roughly about 35 are actively being used.

But Shester said as we consider our impact on the ocean and how we should take action, it’s important to remember our “why.”

“The first step, before you get into the threats of plastics, gillnets, or fisheries, is [understanding] what’s actually at stake,” Shester said. “A lot of people get down and out about the environmental problems; there’s still so much out there to protect and such an amazing marine environment in Southern California just due to the oceanography.”

Rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the call to fix our issues, Melissa Morris, the Southern California field representative from OCEANA, said we should reframe the issues to consider how we can collectively change.

“It’s really about paying attention to your behavior and not only changing your purchasing but just really encouraging companies to switch to something more compostable or biodegradable,” Morris said.

OCEANA is an international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation. Within this past year, they’ve worked on a variety of local and state initiatives to better protect the marine environment. But the struggle continues to be making changes that can be enforced in such vast bodies of water.

Cho explained it comes down to whether we are making these issues part of the conversation with our elected leaders who can address them head on.

“The fastest way you can address climate change is through policy. It really is,” Cho said. “Individual people making decisions are important, but you really need an overall almost governmental decision or policy to be made to enact it and enforce it to guide the population on how to make decisions that will better the environment.”

“Is climate change, is the environment, an important issue for the candidate you’re thinking about voting for?”

“Let’s make sure we protect it before we lose something — before we even have discovered how valuable the treasure is.”

Above the kelp canopy, sevengill sharks, giant sea bass, schooling blacksmiths, and even yellowtail can all be found swimming in San Diego’s waters. Bathed in the iridescent kaleidoscope of sunlight that filters through the briny water, over 20 species of nudibranchs, or sea slugs, drift in the area alongside loads of other small creatures that rely on the ecosystem that is Sunset Cliff’s waters. Beyond that, students from all walks of life swim at Kelloggs Beach or surf at Garbage Beach. This place is much more than an environment but an ecosystem of people and animals who call it home.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Shester said. “You’re just barely discovering the surface of an ancient civilization, and there’s so much more to learn about it. But at least at this point, let’s make sure we protect it before we lose something — before we even have discovered how valuable the treasure is.”

To get engaged with marine life conservation efforts, check out OCEANA’s website. Morris also recommended reaching out to your elected officials and asking them how they are intentionally protecting our natural environments.

Lainie Alfaro is a student at PLNU studying multimedia journalism. She's currently the marketing and research assistant at Viewpoint, and she was previously the editor in chief of The Point student newspaper.