The Urchin Sucker

In Fort Bragg, one obsessed diver is trying to save the kelp forests by hoovering up purple urchins—one at a time.

San Francisco magazine

April 28, 2017

Around 1154, Archdeacon Henry of Huntingdon wrote the Historia Anglorum, a chronicle of England from ancient times up to his day. In it, he included a fable about King Cnut, who reigned from 1016 until his death in 1035. One day, the king ordered his throne to be set on the beach facing the sea. “You are subject to me,” he told the ocean. “I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.”

Spoiler: Cnut got wet. That’s where the saying “commanding the tides”—a mix of futility and delusion—comes from.

Skip forward a thousand years and spin the globe from the English seashore to Fort Bragg, a city of 7,000 people on the Mendocino County coast. Fort Bragg is the home of a 71-year-old diver and reincarnation of King Cnut named Jon Holcomb. Holcomb doesn’t have a throne or a scepter to command his tides, but he does have a 33-foot-long boat he built and named for his daughter Michelle, a diving suit, and a jury-rigged contraption that works something like an underwater vacuum cleaner. Holcomb uses it to suck up purple urchins, the spiny, golf-ball-size creatures that have recently devastated the coast.

Last summer, Holcomb put up three YouTube videos of himself with his son, Mitchell, using his urchin-removal system. It’s a cantankerous device. In the ’60s, Holcomb worked at the Ford plant in Milpitas, and it reminds me of cars from that era: too big, too noisy, yet built with the kind of metal fetishism that inspires the deepest love and reverence. He carries this ungainly aqua-Hoover around underwater. If that sounds like a particularly Cnutian mix of utterly bonkers and perversely admirable, well, it is.

The problem that Holcomb is addressing is a thorny one. In 2013, the purple urchin population boomed after a virus killed off the starfish that are the urchins’ main predator. Unlike their red-colored cousins, whose roe Holcomb collects and sells to onshore processors, the purples have little commercial value.

They’re also hungry sea trash that have severely depleted the bull kelp forest in Northern California. When you see those masses of frondy, slimy green plants on the beach, with long, whiplike strands that end in a bulb, that’s bull kelp. “A lot of people describe [kelp] as the redwood forest [of the ocean],” says Kyle Cavanaugh, a UCLA scientist who studies kelp populations in Southern California and Mexico. “It’s the foundation of this incredibly diverse community.”

Because of a number of factors, including overfeeding by the urchins, the area covered by bull kelp in Northern California waters has declined by an alarming 93 percent since 2014. The destruction of the bull kelp threatens abalones and red urchins, which also feed on the kelp and whose fisheries are collectively worth $47 million a year.

Cynthia Catton, a scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who leads the state’s efforts to understand the problem, knows this only too well. Normally, she notes, the kelp, which are annually growing algae, die and come back every year. That isn’t happening anymore, and the results are obvious to anyone who ventures underwater. “The whole coastline is essentially an urchin barren,” she says. Another kelp species, giant kelp, has also been damaged by the rapacious urchins, although less severely.

The loss of the kelp forest has gone largely unnoticed. But imagine the headlines if more than 90 percent of the giant redwoods disappeared. It was international news when the Calaveras Big Trees State Park sequoia with the road cut through it fell over in January, and that was one tree.

There are no easy solutions to the problem. Catton is reduced to hoping for acts of God. Will a disease like the one that devastated the starfish kill off the urchins? Will the freshwater pumped into the ocean by this winter’s storms knock them back? Could you find a way to sell them, so that there’d be an incentive to harvest them? Or should we just accept that the seafloor is going to be an urchin-covered wasteland?

It’s a sunny day in August when Holcomb sets out with Mitchell. Holcomb is recovering from a bout of decompression, but he has the calm demeanor of a man who knows what he’s doing. He says goodbye to his son, then dives into the aquamarine water. The YouTube video shows what he does next. Cut to a close-up of the ocean floor: We’re facing straight down, toward an uneven rock face dotted with spiny purple lumps. With surprising speed, Holcomb pops the urchins off the rocks with a two-pronged fork he holds in his right hand, guiding them to his left, where he suctions them up into a tube. Pop goes an urchin, then zip up the tube. Pop, zip. Pop, zip. We see a large net filling up with the purple pests. He does this for four or so minutes on camera before his son hauls the bag up to the boat. The bag is filled with purple urchins, dozens, maybe hundreds.

It’s a lot, but it’s not enough. Holcomb estimates that there are only about 50 to 60 days a year when the wind is low enough and the water clear enough to allow him to use the system—and he’s still working on how to keep the urchins’ spines from clinging to one another and jamming up the tube. “The little tiny things stick together like Velcro,” he says. But the most disheartening thing is that after he’s worked for five or six hours to clear an area about the same square footage as an average American house, the purple urchins will return before a week is up. It’s a task that makes Sisyphus seem like a can-do guy.

Even Holcomb recognizes how futile his effort is. “It’s a developing system, not a final answer,” he tells me over the phone one rainy winter morning while taking a pause from working on his boat.

People in the close-knit community of Mendocino urchin divers regard Holcomb and his quixotic mission with bemused respect. They see him as a man of a certain generation, raised to believe that any problem can be solved if you tinker long enough with it. But they also realize that his task has about the same chance of succeeding as the Walrus and the Carpenter’s fantasy, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, of using seven maids with seven mops to clear away the sand on a beach. “He can only cover so much area in a day. It would take a massive effort to make a dent,” says Bob Juntz, a processor who buys red urchins, Dungeness crab, and other critters from people like Holcomb and resells them.

But Holcomb carries on, driven by a desire to protect a wondrous natural phenomenon—the redwoods of the ocean—that most people never see. And he’s also making a statement about his values. “This isn’t just a collapse of the kelp beds—it’s a clash of ideas of what we think is important,” Holcomb says. Better to rig a janky contraption and clear a tiny piece of the ocean floor than curse the urchins and do nothing. 

King Cnut himself might look kindly upon this obsessed septuagenarian. But then again, he might not. You see, popular imagination has garbled the king’s story. It ends with a little-known paragraph that explains his motivation: “But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.’” Here endeth the lesson.

Holcomb knows he can’t get rid of the urchins by himself, but he’s not going to give up. He putters. Experiments. Optimizes. He tries.

The morning is getting on, and Holcomb has to go. The boat is in his garage, and he has work to do. “There are those who say we can’t do anything,” he says by way of signing off. “I disagree.”