Hilda Canter-Lund competition 2016 winner


The winner of the 2016 Hilda Canter-Lund photography award is Tiffany Stephens, for her photograph “Swell Life”, showing algae in the intertidal zone of Snares Island, a small sub-Antarctic island, 200 kilometres south of New Zealand.  Tiffany took this photograph whilst studying for her PhD at the University of Otago with Chris Hepburn.

The picture’s genesis is in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”: Tiffany was on R.V. Polaris II, trying to collect data on the amount of particulate organic matter that was being released into the water by macroalgae, and the role that this played in food webs.    One day, when the sea was especially calm and the swell small, the skipper was able to bring the boat closer to the steep rock wall smothered with algae so that she could lower a probe into the water to collect a sample.   It was during this manoeuvre that Tiffany was able to snap the picture.   Closely cropped, the algae of the intertidal zone and the surging water create a semi-abstract composition that also tells a story of the functioning of near-shore communities in an inhospitable environment.

The dominant alga in the photograph is Durvillaea antarctica, “southern bull kelp”, a brown alga that is only found on exposed shores of the cooler regions of the southern hemisphere.   Above the Durvillaea there is a resilient band of mixed red and encrusting coralline algae.


Tiffany Stephens, 2016 Hilda Canter-Lund award winner.

Unlike the fucoids, common on north temperate coasts, Durvillaea antarctica does not have air bladders in its fronds.  Instead, the interior tissues of the leathery blades have an unusual honeycomb structure which confer strength and buoyancy.   This also means that if the holdfast fails, the kelp is able to float, and to be transported around by oceanic currents.  This may help to explain why Durvillaea is so widespread in the southern hemisphere.  However, it is not just the kelp that benefits: these “rafts” of Durvillaea have been suggested as one means by which the sub-antarctic islands were recolonised by invertebrates following the last ice age.

Durvillaea is also eaten by coastal communities in some parts of the southern hemisphere and, bizarrely, used by Maori communities in New Zealand to preserve “mutton bird”, the sooty shearwater (Ardenna griseus).  If the honeycomb structure of Durvillaea is to function as a buoyancy aid for the living plant, the exterior tissues of the blades needs to be air-tight.  The Maori exploit this property, removing the inner honeycomb tissues to create air-tight bags.  They then preserve the young shearwater inside these bags, covered by their own fat (a sort of shearwater confit, I guess?).

One final fact about Durvillaea is that it forms part of a rather rude expression for sexual intercourse in Chile (remojar el cochayuyo – literally “soaking the seaweed”).  Don’t ever say that reading my blog doesn’t broaden your horizons …


Left: an underwater view of a “forest” of Durvillaea antarctica; right: the “honeycomb” tissues inside a frond of D. antarctica.  Photographs: Chris Hepburn, University of Otago.


Fraser, C.I., Nikula, R. & Waters, J.M. (2011).  Oceanic rafting by a coastal community.  Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B 278: 649-655.

Stephens T.A. & Hepburn C.H. (2014). Mass-transfer gradients across kelp beds influence Macrocystis pyrifera growth over small spatial scales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 515: 97–109.

An Ocean Garden


If you write a blog about algae you shouldn’t be surprised if people give you books about algae as Christmas presents (maybe I should start writing a blog about single malt whisky or fine wine and see what that yields?).   This year, it was a book on seaweeds, called “An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed” by Josie Iselin, a rather beautiful little volume that straddles the boundary between fine art and natural history.   The book is structured as a series of diary entries, each detailing a visit to her local coast (Maine and California at different times), accompanied by a beautiful image of the seaweeds that she collected on that visit.   The images were produced by arranging the fronds on the glass of a flatbed scanner, and then generating a computer image file.   The results are intriguing, perhaps because the translucence of the thin tissues of seaweed fronds creates a fascinating balance between reflected and transmitted light. The artist’s sensibility comes to the fore as she arranges the fronds on the plate; the scientist in the naming of each species and the comments on their natural history; the writer in her weaves the strands of anecdote and fact into the notes that accompany each image.

I’d like to think that I had infected people around me with a little of my enthusiasm for algae. I fear that the truth is that I have inoculated them, and that they have developed a tolerance that means that they can zone out whenever I start to ramble on about algae yet again. However, I think that I could probably leave Josie Iselin’s book lying around, and that those same people might well pick it up and start to marvel yet again.   Well worth investigating.


Josie Iselin (2014). An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed. Abrams Books, New York.

Wide Sargassum Sea …

It is, I am afraid, a fact of life that algae usually only attract the media’s attention when they are a problem.   Yesterday’s newspapers contained a good example of this, describing the masses of the brown seaweed Sargassum that have washed up on Caribbean and Latin American coastlines, disrupting the tourist industry.  Sargassum is a natural part of the  for the Sargassum is an interesting organism, living a predominately planktonic (floating) existence rather than living in the coastal zone, like most other seaweeds.  There is a region of the western Atlantic that has been named the “Sargasso Sea” as Sargassum is particularly abundant here.   The Sargasso Sea is a region of relatively still water in the midst of rotating ocean currents (the marine equivalent of the eye of a hurricane) and the Sargassum proliferates here, hosting a unique ecosystem of its own in the middle of the ocean.  It is from here that the larvae of eels start their long journey s across the oceans to our rivers, and to which the adult eels will, in time, return to spawn.

Although we have known about the Sargasso Sea for a long time (it was first named by Christopher Columbus), the arrival of such large quantities of Sargassum weed on beaches is a new phenomenon, and not one that can be explained easily.   Climate change is suspected, influencing the oceanic circulation patterns, but there is no definitive explanation as yet.

That we only read of algae in the popular press when they become a nuisance is, however, a real problem.   It creates the impression that algae are Bad Things that need to be controlled and kept at bay which, in turn, sets the agenda for environmental management.  The reality is that algae are Good Things, without which life on earth (and soft ice cream) would not be possible (see “Every second breath….”, “Healthy streams are slippery streams” and other posts).   However, preventing (or minimising the risk of ) Bad Things, does not necessarily mean that we have created an environment in which Good Things can thrive.  Yet it is hard – very hard – to get that message across.

A long wrack to freedom …

If you go to the cinema to see the Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom you will see one scene, set on Robben Island, when Mandela and the other political prisoners are working on the seashore, with Cape Town and Table Mountain visible in the distance, across the water.

In the book on which the film is based, Mandela explains what they were doing:

“We were instructed to pick up the large pieces of seaweed that had washed up on the beach, and wade out to collect weed attached to rocks or coral.  The seaweed itself was long and slimy and brownish-green in colour.  Sometimes the pieces were six to eight feet in length and thirty pounds in weight.  After fishing out the seaweed from the shallows, we lined it up in rows on the beach.  When it was dry, we loaded it into the back of the truck.  We were told it was then shipped to Japan where it was used as a fertiliser.”

The seaweed sounds like Ecklonia maxima, or possibly a species of Laminaria, which are harvested for a variety of purposes, not just as fertiliser (see Of Sea bamboo, split-fan kelp and bladder kelp).   There is a huge literature on the commercial exploitation of seaweeds, with the prospect of using them as “biofuels” being just the latest of many trends.  Mandela’s experience, however, illustrates a recurring theme: that the theoretical potential of the huge quantities of algae in nearshore waters is difficult to convert into profit.   On Robben Island, for example, the prisoners provided free labour to make the enterprise economically viable.  The biofuel debate is, similarly, as much about economics as it is about algae.   It is only as other fuels become more expensive that the costs of harvesting algae start to look attractive.

Harvesting seaweed seems, from Mandela’s account, to be one of the few bright points in his time on Robben Island.   Part of this was because the co-lateral of seaweed harvesting was a plentiful supply of seafood which they popped into a pot of boiling water sitting on an open fire on the seashore:

“When it was ready, the warders would join us and we would all sit down on the beach and have a kind of picnic lunch.  In 1973, in a smuggled newspaper, we read about the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and the story detailed the bridal luncheon of rare and delicate dishes.  The menu included mussels, crayfish and abalone, which made us laugh; we were dining on such delicacies every day.”

The Iron Lady II: the Agar Years

A word of explanation: for nine years until 2012 I wrote a regular column for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s magazine In Practice, based on the exploits of Basil O’Saurus, self-styled Professor of Tauro-Scatology.  As this is a quarterly publication, some of the seams that I mined for inspiration had lost topicality by the time I had to submit my copy, and a few articles have sat on my laptop unpublished.   One of these unpublished pieces was written when the film The Iron Lady was released.  The recent death of Margaret Thatcher gives me a chance to resurrect this piece so we catch up with Basil O’Saurus as he heads to a meeting in Soho, in London’s media heartland. 

Where are you heading today, Prof?

I’m pitching my latest film idea to a production company.  The film industry loves to cash in on a successful film, so I’m proposing a prequel to one of the biggest box office successes of the past year.   You’ve heard of “The Iron Lady”?

Of course, Famed for Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning depiction of Margaret Thatcher

So now prepare yourself for: “The Iron Lady: The Agar Years”.  Ninety minutes of tense drama based on the true story of Margaret Thatcher’s time in a laboratory using algal by-products to improve the quality of ice cream.  Just think how different history might have been had she stayed.  Just think how different ice cream might have been if her talents had not been distracted by politics?

But surely you cannot base an entire movie on her one year in an industrial chemistry laboratory?

Of course not: The Iron Lady: the Agar Years will be searching for the dramatic untold stories in Margaret Thatcher’s early life and linking these to later events.

By “dramatic untold stories” do you mean “complete and utter fiction”?

Maybe, but a whole feature film devoted to algal by-products might tax even Meryl Streep’s acting so we need to dig deep.   And, just like in the original film, we’ll be telling the story through flashbacks.

Give us an example.

Picture the scene: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is planning the Falklands campaign, senior advisors are describing the terrible risks of sending a task force so far, Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State is trying to broker a compromise and ….

Cut to a flash back?

Exactly.  Imagine the scene: the young, idealistic Margaret Thatcher poring over obscure phycological texts late into the evening, trying to find seaweeds that will yield newer and better polysaccharides … she finds a paper by H.J. Humon on agar resources of the South Atlantic published in Science in 1944 … it leads her to dig yet deeper into the subject ..

Cut back to 1982: Alexander Haig’s voice can be heard trying to persuade her that an unelected but pro-US right wing military junta has every right to invade an archipelago which, let’s face it, few British people had even heard about back in 1982 …

And, back to 1955 … she is reading the reports of the Discovery expedition from the early years of the twentieth century, as it investigates the marine resources in the southern Ocean …

1982, again, and her face has a steely resolve: to Alexander Haig these may be just a pile of rocks in the South Atlantic barely worth squabbling over, but they are British rocks and that is British seaweed fringing the littoral …

Maybe someone reminded her that the Falkland Islanders known as “kelpies”?   That must have meant something to her?

So The Iron Lady: The Agar Years is going to put a phycological spin on Margaret Thatcher’s entire premiership?   Surely you can’t explain her confrontation with the miners using algae?

Oh yes I can: coal industry waste was dumped into the sea at several points along the County Durham coast with devastating effects on marine life ….

So Margaret Thatcher engineers a confrontation with the miners ….

…. the entire social fabric of parts of north-east England come close to unravelling ….the mines close, the coal dumping ceases and, scrolling forwards thirty years, the coastline now has a healthy seaweed covered littoral.

And all because of Margaret Thatcher’s brief professional interest in ice cream?   Nice theory, but will it pass peer review?   Thanks for your insights, Prof.


Note #1: Fact or fiction?  Margaret Thatcher certainly worked for a time as a food research chemist for J. Lyons & co in London.  The precise nature of her work there is not clear; stories that she was involved in the invention of soft ice cream are anecdotal.  But it is too good a story to ignore completely.   A good account of her scientific career is by Jon Agar (I kid not): Thatcher: Scientist in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society 65: 215-232 (2011).

Note #2: Basil O’Saurus derives his name from the Basilosaurus, an extinct whale-like mammal that lived about 40 million years ago.

Note #3: Tauro-Scatology? Go away and think about it.