Skip to main content

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

Making Turtle Waves

The look on Keilan Fowora’s face was priceless. “Are these real?” asked the seven-year-old, running his fingers over a sea turtle shell and the sharp teeth on a shark jaw bone. “Yep, they’re real,” assured Heather Detwiler, outreach associate for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, standing behind the table at Tacoma’s STAR Center. Then Keilan’s … Continued

Read More
Spider crabs make a scientific splash

Aquarist Mikiko Williams, clad in a black wetsuit, stood in the Japanese Spider Crab habitat at the Pacific Seas Aquarium, reached down, gently picked up an animal that weighed about 8 pounds and hoisted it up and out of the water. It was just after 8:30 a.m., the Zoo would open in an hour, and … Continued

Read More
Caring for the small: Rockfish and seahorse

In a corridor surrounded by pipes, tanks and equipment, three women crouch over a tub. One – an intern veterinarian – carefully handles a Q-tip swab. The second – a veterinarian – readies a microscope slide. The third – an aquarist – has her gloved hands submerged, gently holding a china rockfish. A fourth aquarist … Continued

Read More
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.