Why You Should Be in on the Secret Life of Seaweed

This artist is on a mission to share the story of seaweed

Every year, Ocean Conservancy hosts artists-in-residence. These artists highlight the beauty and power of the ocean through their work, and seek to educate their community about the role of the ocean. This year, Josie Iselin and Joan P. Bogart were selected, and are hosting a year-long show in Ocean Conservancy’s Santa Cruz office. The following is based on an interview I had with Josie, who not only inspires with her stunning prints, but taught me more than I thought I could know about marine algae. Her artistic and scientific knowledge is a tribute to the importance of these unheralded species.


Josie is an artist inspired by marine algae, which includes common species such as kelp and seaweed. Josie was inspired to start learning about the seaweeds during a ‘Rocky Shores Naturalists’ program hosted by the California Academy of Sciences and started researching how kelp and other marine algae interact with their environments. Beyond learning about the ecology and role of kelp within the marine ecosystem, Josie began finding ways to creatively explore the physical beauty of kelp as a means of communicating their importance and role in the ecosystem.

Josie uses a scanner as a camera to capture the unique shapes and luminosity of marine algae. The scanner can push light through the subject in ways a traditional camera cannot. Josie pairs these photographs with graphic imagery to create prints that highlight the innate beauty of the algae. These prints and images, along with her research on the history and ecology of algae, are collected in two of her books; An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed, and her newly released title, The Curious World of Seaweed


Josie’s mission as an artist is to tell the story of marine algae and the world that it creates.

Kelp is a keystone species, providing habitat, food and physical infrastructure that literally hold up entire ecosystems. Josie’s work focuses on that central role, exploring how iconic species like otter and abalone depend on kelp to survive. Josie seeks to tell her stories accurately and completely, and her books give in-depth scientific descriptions as well as historical accounts of how humans and marine algae have co-existed for centuries.

Unfortunately, kelp has gained attention in recent years due to a massive die-off in California.

The die-off of a predatory starfish due to sea star wasting disease has caused the populations of kelp-eating sea urchins to explode. And a warming ocean is never good for kelp—it depends on the cold waters of our North Pacific for its exuberant growth. Sea otter are another urchin predator, but their California populations have only recovered in Central California after being virtually extirpated during the fur trade from 1750-1850. All of these stressors on the bull kelp have left divers and scientists anxious and seeking action to help.

Beyond acting as keystone species, Josie highlights the beauty and specialness of kelp and urges their appreciation as stand-alone species. “Marine algae deserve notoriety and respect. Seaweed, seagrass, the great kelp forests—they are all wild organisms on the same level as sharks and tigers. They are spectacular and awe-inspiring.”


Josie is on a book tour!

You can also visit her webpage and view more of work at www.josieiselin.com.

Stay tuned for a blog by our other 2019 artist Joan P. Bogart.

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