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Coastal Kelp Forest

Did you know?

Girl or boy? For a California sheephead fish, it depends when you ask. They start out female, then turn male around age 10. Come to the Kelp Forest and meet our sheephead, Buddy!

Explore the Kelp

An underwater forest
right here in the Zoo.
Tall strands of kelp wave gently in the current. Vermillion, pink and gold fish dart between the “leaves”, a leopard shark moseys along and a moray eel peers out. A replica of the enormous giant kelp forests of the Pacific coast, this habitat highlights a delicate ecosystem.
Waving strands
give food, shelter, life.
Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is a plant, not an animal, but it’s crucial to the ecosystem of a kelp forest. A towering seaweed, it provides food and shelter for otters, invertebrates and over 100 fish species. It can live for many years, growing up to 18 inches in a day and forming forests over 150 feet tall.

Meet Our Animals

California sheephead
Garibaldi
California moray eel
Leopard shark
Bat star
Not just an underbite
Sheephead like to crunch
California sheephead have strong teeth to crunch the lobster, crab, sea urchin and mussels they love to eat, and special bones in their throats to finish the job.
To avoid predators, they wrap themselves in a mucus cocoon to rest at night. Predators can’t smell them through the mucus.
Fade to black (and white)
Rockfish go deep
Flag rockfish hide while young under protective kelp leaves. As they grow, they move to deeper water – often 200-700 feet, and sometimes over 1,300 feet deep.
Down this far, red colors fade and darken, and this red striped fish turns almost to black and white, like a zebra.
Hot lips
for flagfish
Treefish are also known as “lipstick fish” because of the bright red coloring that warns other fish out of their territory.
They also raise their dorsal fins, facing off with open mouths and sometimes locking jaws with intruders to scare them off.

Help the kelp

by helping otters.

THE THREAT: Kelp forests such as those in California and southern Australia have in the past been decimated by sea urchins, who eat through the kelp without enough sea otters to keep them in check.

TAKE ACTION: For 15 years our Zoo has taken part in the Washington Sea Otter Survey. Help protect otters – and other marine mammals – by reducing your plastic use and keeping trash out of the ocean.

Aquarium Stories

Sculpting Sand Species

UPDATE: Now over. Thanks for visiting! Q: Where in the world would you find an elephant, a sea turtle and an axolotl all together? A: In Species in the Sand, the new sand sculpture this summer at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium! Beginning mid-May, our sculpting team led by Tacoma native Sue McGrew will return … Continued

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X-ray Vision, Underwater

It’s magical enough to stand inside the Pacific Seas Aquarium and gaze at shimmering scales, cruising sea turtles or impossibly long wolf eels. But with x-ray vision, a whole new underwater world reveals itself. Thanks to our veterinary team, who regularly take radiographs of our Pacific Seas Aquarium animals to check on their health and … Continued

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Making Turtle Waves

UPDATE: May 1, 2019 We did it! We made 3,600 paper turtles, glueing them onto ten blue silk “waves” to create a cascading spiral of ocean beauty in the Pacific Seas Aquarium. And we raised $10,068 for ocean conservation, thanks to the Ocean Art Challenge sponsored by the Bezos Family Foundation, and all the hundreds … Continued

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Who's Nearby?
Like the Kelp Forest? Then keep going to Northwest Waters, a massive exhibit full of more animals that live in the cold Pacific.