Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

seaweed harvester Amanda Swinimer
Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds adjusts her flippers at a seaweed-harvesting site on the shores of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Shanna Baker

Coastal Job: Seaweed Harvester

Amanda Swinimer specializes in hand-selecting seaweeds while snorkeling.

Authored by

As told to Stefan Slater

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Amanda Swinimer spends her days hand-harvesting the various seaweeds of British Columbia, ranging from bull kelp to sea lettuce. She is the owner and operator of Dakini Tidal Wilds, a Vancouver Island–based business that provides seaweed to local chefs and produces herbal- and seaweed-based teas and salves.

I took an algae physiology class in university: we identified things like reproductive structures under microscopes, and I was the weird one in class saying things like, “Can you eat this seaweed?” And the professor was like, “I don’t know. Nobody has ever asked me that.” It just came from natural curiosity: seaweed is beautiful, eerie, mysterious. I was intrigued.

I grew up in Orillia, Ontario, but couldn’t wait to move to the ocean. During summer breaks from university in Nova Scotia, where I studied marine biology, I came to British Columbia to plant trees. I fell in love with the land, and I got into wildcrafting—harvesting wild plants. I chose plants for their health properties and made salves, oils, and tinctures that I sold to local markets and health stores.

Once I’d finally moved to the coast, I found a couple of seaweeds listed in my wildcrafting guidebook. I went down to the beach and cut one the way the book described. Once I realized I could wildcraft in the ocean, my two passions came together—after that first day 18 years ago, I got my license and have never stopped.

I just love harvesting and being in the ocean. Kelp, in particular, is my biggest passion in the seaweed world—it has phenomenal health-giving properties.

My day depends on what I’m harvesting: all of July and August I harvest bull kelp. Most people use a boat, but I harvest by snorkeling because then I know I’m getting the best pieces.

The water here is cold year-round. I put on my wetsuit and swim a couple hundred meters offshore with a mesh bag on my back. Bull kelp grows as a hollow tube that culminates in a bulbous float. Off the bulbs are the blades of kelp—that’s what I harvest. In British Columbia, commercial harvesters are only allowed to cut in a place where it will regenerate.

I’m in the water about an hour and a half. Once I have about 50 pounds [23 kilograms] in my bag, I transfer the blades into a wheelbarrow on shore and then head back out. On the rare days when we get summer swells, it can be dangerous to get out of the water with that much weight.

At home, I hang each piece on cedar racks. It takes a lot longer to hang kelp than to harvest it. I run fans and a dehumidifier—it takes 48 hours to dry. I end up with about 530 kilograms worth, in wet weight, at the end of bull kelp season.

I see wildlife every time. I see schools of fish the size of my living room. Once, I saw a giant Pacific octopus. It wasn’t much more than a hand’s width away. I looked through the kelp blades and could see tentacles weaving in and out. It had this huge head about the size of the pillow I sleep on; its head was wine red, its tentacles faded from red at the base to translucent white at the tips. Time stood still. I couldn’t eat octopus anymore after that.

Until a few years ago, I was just selling seaweed wholesale to health stores and one restaurant in Victoria, British Columbia. I was peddling it to restaurants, and no one was interested. But recently, new wave chefs supportive of local food producers have embraced seaweed because it has a totally unique flavor. More than half of my supplies now go direct to chefs.

I use bull kelp as a seasoning—just crumble it on top of my dish. It’s the saltiest seaweed and has a light texture.

The water in a bull kelp forest feels healing. It’s glacier green with a hint of dark turquoise and looks like it’s glowing within, I can’t get used to that. If God had a color, it’s the color of the water out here in the kelp forest.