It's mid-afternoon, late summer. I'm one of four neophyte seaweed foragers meeting Spencer Marley at Estero Bluffs State Park, three miles north of Cayucos on California's Central Coast. Cayucos has a population of about 2,630, compact in comparison to other seaside towns in the state. It reminds me of a beach bum throwback to the sixties.
Spencer is in his early forties with a teddy bear demeanor that quickly puts us at ease. "Unlike rummaging around for mushrooms or berries, seaweed foraging is 100% safe," he tells us. "Unless it's contaminated by polluted water, and this water is pure."
Another lesson: Just because seaweed doesn't contain toxins doesn't mean it all tastes good. "Certain types have a funky texture or flavor," he explains.
He hands out colander-type baskets, gallon-size Ziplock bags, and grape-snipping shears. In the early days of leading tours his equipment came from the dollar store. He's since upped his gear game.
Spencer shoulders a well-worn backpack loaded with our lunch fixings. We trail behind him on a narrow path through parched saltbush and beach bur-sage. The loose gravel is slippery. I worry about scrambling over wave-battered rocks in sneakers. I should've invested in grippy rubber boots.
Spencer talks about his background as if saltwater runs through his veins. He's had jobs in commercial fishing (tuna and salmon), managing an oyster farm in nearby Morro Bay, and foraging and selling seaweed at local farmers markets. Back then, his mega-athlete customers added nutrient-rich seaweed to their smoothies. Now he's strictly a tour guide.
The beach is deserted. No kids, kites, or coolers.
Kelp beds grow a hundred yards offshore in a forest that stretches two miles from Cayucos pier to Cayucos point. The kelp is commercially harvested for its alginate acid, used as a thickener in soups, jellies, ice cream, cosmetics, and a variety of things pharmaceutical.
Spencer shrugs from his pack and splashes into a shallow, rocky pool. We dodge turban snails and sea anemones. Common rock crabs skitter from our shadows. My steps are clumsy. My shoes and socks, soaked. I hate wet socks.
"If you do it right, harvesting doesn't harm the plant," he says, cutting a strip off a small-branching seaweed called olive rockweed. "Only cut two or three inches and it grows back quickly." He ticks off the names of seaweed parts: Aptly called holdfast (tree-like root), stipe (stem) and blade (leaf). Technically these plants belong to the algae family.
I've spent six-plus decades living within thirty miles of the Pacific Ocean. As a kid, I loved to stomp seaweeds' gas-filled pods. The larger the pod, the louder the pop. It felt like dancing on bubble-wrap. But I never considered eating it.
I admit to being a bit squeamish as I bite into my first-ever unprocessed slice of seaweed. It's fresh, raw, and rubbery with an odd mouthfeel. The texture is a cross between Gummy Bears and 90s fruit leather. Spencer says the salty flavor is more from the sea than the seaweed. I'm not convinced. It feels like the moisture is being sucked from my mouth.
I'm not sure what the rules are in other states, but California Department of Fish and Wildlife allows "recreational harvest of marine algae for personal use." The daily bag limit is ten pounds, an amount that would feed a garden snail for five months.
One of the tour goers, a man originally from Hong Kong, snags a mass of shiny brown laminaria that has floated in from deep-water. The holdfast remains intact, clutching a fist-sized rock.
"A piece like this is worth about $100 retail," Spencer says. "It's the best of the best when it comes to flavoring broths."
We're able to sample a larger section since the kelp has been uprooted and will eventually rot in the sand. The laminaria is crunchy with a slight floral aftertaste. The young couple from San Francisco sling terms like umami (a category of taste with a savory tang) and dashi (a fishy flavor associated with sardines or anchovies).
I keep confusing Turkish washcloth (a red alga with a bumpy texture) with Turkish towel (narrower and sometimes flaring at the tip). Both varieties have thickish blades. Dried, the washcloth can be used as a loofah. Spas add it to saltwater healing baths. Skin absorbs the vitamins and minerals. Hmmm. Why not?
Spencer scratches his sea-dog beard, tossing out tidbits so fast I miss half of them, though he keeps repeating, "Seaweeds are a sustainable, nutrient-packed food source. The best part? They're surprisingly tasty." Each seaweed type has its own profile of proteins, B-vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, antioxidants and more.
Someone asks about a striking green plant undulating in the current. "Scouler's surfgrass isn't a seaweed," Spencer replies, fingering the long, slender blades. "Grass is an important nursery habitat for small fishes and invertebrates."
My odds-on favorite is a brownish, nutrient-dense plant with an unbeatable name, bladderwrack. The hint of olives and capers makes me think of pasta. Spencer suggests we try cutting it into noodle-like strips for stir-fry.
I skim a bright green wad of ruffle-edged sea lettuce in the genus ulva. It's thin and glossy, nearly transparent. I'll remember the name because it looks like the leaf lettuce in my garden. To the Japanese, the color evokes thoughts of jade, a symbol of wealth and power.
"Try sea lettuce fresh in salads and soups," Spencer says. "I fold it into omelets."
My tastebuds seem to fall into the milder spectrum, preferring plants with a subtle flavor and crunch. "What about as a substitute for basil in pesto?" I ask.
"Absolutely! Juice it! Raw!"
Most seaweed lasts a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. Just don't wash it in fresh water before bagging it up. "I learned the hard way," he says, squinting beneath the duckbill of his cap. "The crop turned to mush overnight."
Spencer air-dries seaweed in the sun, spreading his crop on an old window screen. Some foragers prefer oven drying, but that's a bit tricky since different varieties require different drying times. When dehydrated, thicker-leafed types make sturdy wraps for fish, rice, and vegetables.
Spencer snips the tip of a reddish-tinged alga crawling over a rock on the edge of the high tide line. Slow-growing 'nori' (Pyropia species) is considered the most valuable aquaculture product in the world.
Hundreds of square miles are farmed in Japan, with a yield of 350,000 tons a year, at a worth of about a billion dollars. Harvesting and processing nori is labor-intensive and expensive. First it's pulverized into a paste, then pressed, rolled, baked, and cut into square sheets for sushi rolls.
I'm fascinated by the role red seaweed played during the Irish Potato Famine. The devastating food shortage began in 1845 when a fungus-like organism ruined half of the country's potato crop and another three-quarters over the next seven years. To fight nutritional deficiencies, seaweed was stirred into warm milk with sugar and spices. It didn't catch on enough though. Before the famine ended in 1852, roughly one million people had died of starvation and related issues.
Eight miles to the south, Morro Rock looks like a massive crown-shaped hill. If I could draw, I'd sketch the steep sides and vertical crags, deeply shaded wrinkles formed 23 million years ago.
For centuries, the Chumash tribe practiced sacred rites at the base of the 576-foot-tall volcanic plug. The people were great fishers and harvested seaweed to use as a side dish with fish, mussels, abalone, and clams.
In 1542, Iberian explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo named the rock "El Morro." It was mined off and on until the early 60s—chipped away, blasted with dynamite, and hauled off. A good bit of it became the breakwater of Morro Bay and Port San Luis Harbor.
Spencer rinses his basket of seaweed in a shallow pool. He unloads his backpack in a swath of dry sand, retrieving a propane stove, a large cooking pot, a cutting board, and cleaver. The four of us gather around while he chops onion and garlic and browns it in his special low-sodium soy sauce concoction.
Two liberal handfuls of coarsely cut seaweed go in next—thick and thin blades from the day's bounty. He adds bottled water and a packet of dried Dayat ramen noodles from a local Asian market.
"I grew up in the Bay Area," he says, passing us bowls and chopsticks. "I ate more ramen than burgers."
The pot bubbles and steams. The aroma reminds me of miso soup. Spencer ladles broth-rich ramen into our bowls. The mélange of textures and flavors amaze me—unlike anything I've ever tasted. Piquant with an earthy undertone, yet subtle enough to let the seaweed come through. I envision adding sprigs of French thyme and lavender.
In the last year my ragtag home garden has grown into an obsession. I cultivated Yukon Gold potatoes in a cardboard box that delivered a new stereo system. I grow beet, radish and carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. So I love learning about seaweed, how to single out my favorites, and what sort of habitat it prefers. Those of us who live near the coast are pretty lucky. Those who are landlocked can order fresh seaweed online.
A mucilaginous mass of kelp has been fermenting in a large pot of water on the side of my house for a month. I suspect the stench will let me know when it's cooked. Plants fed with seaweed fodder are said to grow like weeds. We'll see...
To reserve a spot on Spencer Marley's seaweed foraging tour call 805-441-3603. Or use the booking calendar on the website.
Sherry Shahan's Alaskan-based adventure novels include Ice Island and Frozen Stiff. Her travel articles and photographs have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Backpacker, Country Living and many other magazines and newspapers. See more at SherryShahan.com.
The Truffle Hunt in Umbria - Susan Van Allen
Redmond O'Hanlon in Borneo and My Adventures with Leeches and Rhinos - Sherry Shahan
Lessons Learned in the Wales Countryside - Amy Rosen
Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered - Lydia Carey
See other USA travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: