Ambassadors of the Environment
El Capitan Campground
In Central California
Located 20 miles north of Santa Barbara on the Californian coastline, El
Capitan Ranch is perfect place to study and enjoy coastal chapparal and
kelp forest ecosystems. With Los Padres National Forest and El Capitan
State Beach close by, this place is a wonderful outdoor classroom and
laboratory for the Ambassadors of the Environment outdoor education
This Ambassadors of Environment (AOTE) program is usually offered
to school groups for 1-5 day overnight programs. It gives students
what they typically cannot find in the classroom: chances to study
nature firsthand in a hands-on, high energy, experiential way.
AOTE offers a variety of activities to immerse students in the beautiful
ecosystems of the California coast, including terrestrial hikes,
snorkeling, kayaking, creek walks with water quality monitoring, and
native Chumash talks, all of which are interspersed with lessons and
games about sustainable living.
AOTE students get the opportunity to dive straight into the kelp forest
ecosystem thriving right off the coast of El Capitan State Beach. They
soon learn that this ecosystem is like a bustling, lively “city under the
sea” where each of its inhabitants has a specific job in its community.
In AOTE, the “city under the
sea” metaphor is used to
explain the ecological roles
of many different creatures
in the kelp forest. Just like
human cities where
everyone has a specific job,
kelp forests have power
plants, farmers, recycling
and waste managers,
doctors, and demolition
Kelp is essentially the “construction crew” and “architect” of the kelp
forest: it creates the “buildings” –the 3D physical structure—in which
countless organisms live and find shelter. Kelp is a type of brown algae
and is considered one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Given
optimal conditions, cold nutrient rich waters, kelp can grow up to 2 feet in
one day and can reach over 100 feet in its lifetime, creating homes for the
800+ species of marine animals that live in the kelp forest.
Kelp attaches to the seafloor
with a structure called a
holdfast. Without this, the kelp
might drift to shore and die, so
the holdfast is the essential
“foundation” of the kelp
Kelp needs sunlight to grow, so it has gas-filled bladders, or floats, that
help it float to the ocean’s surface and collect as much sunlight as
possible. It therefore creates a vertical structure with a variety of niches,
from the surface to the mid-water and ocean floor.
Just like there are construction
crews in this underwater city,
there are also “demolition
crews.” Sea urchins munch on
the kelp’s holdfasts, sometimes
chewing all the way through
and freeing the kelp to float
away in the ocean currents. The
kelp can survive this way, but if
it washes onto shore it will die
Kelp, in addition to providing
the “buildings” in the city
under the sea, also serves as a
“solar power plant.” The kelp
blades reach out like leaves on
a tree to collect the sun’s
energy through a process
Pigments in the blade collect
the energy in photons of light
and convert it into sugar, the
kelp’s food of choice! When
other creatures eat the kelp,
this energy is transferred up
the food chain, eventually
powering the entire kelp forest
The kelp forest, complete with its buildings and power plants, is home to
many “families.” This is a male Garibaldi. He has carefully cultivated a
nest of algae on which his mate will lay eggs (top left). The couple fiercely
defends its home from intruders.
Should a predator such as a sea star encroach on their territory, they
immediately remove the threat to defend their homes and their young!
There is also “advertising” on the reef, just like we find throughout
human cities. This nudibranch’s ad comes in the form of bright colors:
they indicate the nudibranch contains nasty, unpalatable toxins and
warn predators to steer clear!
Kelp forests, like human cities, are
even home to “thieves” and
“criminals.” The spanish shawl
nudibranch (top left) eats hydroids
(bottom right), which contain
stinging cells. What is really cool is
that the nudibranch can prevent
the hydroids’ stingers from
discharging and actually store
Having stolen someone else’s defense, them in its gills (the orange frilly
the nudibranch walks around in broad things on the top of the
daylight, naked and without a shell, nudibranch).
advertising itself with brilliant colors
saying, “See my colorful gills? They are
full of hydroid stingers and if you eat
me you will get a mouthful of pain.”
That’s quite an adaptation: using
someone else’s defense for yourself and
then using warning coloration to make
sure everyone knows it. Not only is this
efficient but it enables the snail to avoid
going to the trouble of making a heavy
Swimming through a kelp forest, one might happen upon a “doctor’s
office.” These yellow senoritas are the doctors and the gray blacksmiths
are their patients. Senoritas eat parasites and dead scales off their
patients, keeping them clean and healthy while getting an easy meal.
This is called a mutualistic relationship because both parties benefit.
Blacksmiths indicate they are ready for their doctor’s appointment by
standing on their heads! Just like human doctor’s offices, there is usually
a line, and each patient must wait his or her turn.
Kelp forests and human cities are very similar. However, unlike in human
cities, the inhabitants of coral reefs and rainforests do not pollute, deplete
their natural resources, or destroy other ecosystems. Therefore, kelp
forests offer lessons that can help us make our own communities more
The Four Principles
By understanding how nature
works, we can imitate it and
make our own way of life more
sustainable on Earth. In the
Ambassadors of the
Environment program, we
learned four simple lessons
about how nature works and
used them to brainstorm ways
to live sustainably. We call
them the Four Principals.
The Four Principles
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
1. Everything Runs The first Principle states that
EVERYTHING RUNS ON ENERGY.
On Energy Just like our bodies, cars,
desktop lamps, computers,
televisions, and appliances –
every organism in nature
Some creatures, like kelp and
plants on land, get their energy
from the sun. They harness the
sun’s energy to make their own
food in a process called
photosynthesis, and therefore
we call them “primary
producers.” They often provide
the base of the food chain in
their particular ecosystem,
converting solar energy into
chemical energy and thus
transferring the sun’s energy to
the rest of the ecosystem’s
Here is a Norris kelp snail
grazing on kelp. This snail is an
herbivore that uses its rough
tongue to scrape off and eat
algae, converting the kelp’s
energy into snail energy.
Notice there is a hole in the
snail’s shell. Any idea who
made this hole, and why?
The hole was made by this fella - an octopus. The octopus feeds on snails
and other shellfish. In this food chain, the sun’s energy is converted into
kelp energy, then into Norris kelp snail energy and then into octopus
energy. But the food chain doesn’t stop here. So who would eat an
A sculpin (left) would consider
an octopus a fine dish. So
would a kelp bass (bottom).
The sun’s energy is transferred
from kelp, to Norris kelp snails,
to octopuses, and finally to kelp
bass and sculpins! And what a
great energy source for the kelp
city to use! Solar energy is a
clean, renewable energy source
that never runs out!
How do humans presently get most of their power? From oil and coal-
power plants. In these power plants, oil or coal is burned to heat water
and create steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity.
However, burning oil and coal releases harmful greenhouse gasses into
our atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. This serious
problem could be solved by switching to renewable energy sources such
as wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
We explored some of these
alternative energy sources in
the Ambassadors of the
Environment program. Here,
we used a solar oven for
cooking. It was easy and only
required sunlight, a free and
renewable source of energy.
The El Capitan campground uses this solar water heater to heat the
camp’s pool. This saves the camp a lot of money in gas bills each month,
AND it prevents greenhouse gases from being emitted into the
atmosphere! A win-win situation!
2. There Is No Waste In Nature
The second principle says “THERE IS NO WASTE IN NATURE.” In nature,
resources such as nutrients are continually reused and recycled, sooner
or later being used by a living thing. For example, in kelp forests,
creatures such as lobsters specialize on eating detritus, the organic
“leftovers” or “dead stuff” on the seafloor. Along with worms and
microbes, lobsters ensure that virtually all organic matter is consumed
and its energy goes to use.
Like lobsters, sea cucumber eat detritus. What’s great about them is what
comes out their back end is cleaner than what goes in their mouths! They
ingest a mixture of sand and detritus and poop out clean sand, thus
keeping the forest nice and clean while getting a meal!
Remember the food chain we learned about? This diagram summarizes
that food chain. It shows how predators like kelp bass or sculpins might
die, fall to the seafloor, and decompose to become detritus that’s eaten by
creatures like sea cucumbers and lobsters. The sea cucumbers also die,
decomposing into the simple nutrients that will eventually fertilize the
growth of new kelp, thus re-entering the nutrient cycle. In the kelp forest,
nutrients are used over and over again: There is no waste in nature!!
At El Capitan a special guest lecturer from the Chumash Native American
nation speaks about how her people lived sustainably along the Central
Californian coast for hundreds of years, their lifestyle inherently
producing little to no waste! Their lifestyle is a great example of
Today, humans tend to waste a lot of
resources. One thing we can do to
change this situation is compost.
Composting is where worms, bugs and
microbes convert organic waste into
soil, just as we see in nature. By
composting food leftovers, we prevent
garbage from going to ever-growing
landfills, where things take a much
longer time to break down and don’t
get the chance to return to a natural
ecosystem. Instead, waste is converted
into useful, fertile soil that can be
reused in a garden.
This worm poop fertilizer can then be used to grow plants in an organic
garden, and in turn we can eat yummy fruits and vegetables! In nature
everything is recycled - there is no waste in nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good
Biodiversity refers to the
number of different species that
live in a certain ecosystem.
Biodiversity is like nature’s
insurance policy, because when
there are a lot of different
organisms in an ecosystem, all
of the important work needed to
keep the community healthy
gets done. If one species ails or
disappears, many others are
around to replace it.
The kelp forest is home to an interesting biodiversity of different
organisms, and each has specific adaptations to help it thrive in its
particular niche. This Wavy Turban snail, for example, grazes algae and
other types of organic matter on the bottom of the ocean with a hard
shell for protection.
The wavy turban snail has adapted a strong shell and a really neat trap
door, called an operculum, to protect itself from predators even if it is
turned upside down. Pretty clever since its soft body would probably be a
yummy meal to many hungry mouths in the kelp forest…
…like this hornshark. He would go crazy for a wavy turban snail if he could
ever find one without its hard protective shell.
Biodiversity is good within a single species. Juvenile garibaldi (top) look
different from the adults (bottom) so they are not forced to compete as
adults at a young age. This diversity of form keeps the juveniles safer in
the kelp forest environment and therefore keeps the species as a whole
Boring clams, found in the rocky intertidal zone on the beach, are the
demolition crews of the beach, and they have their own special way to
protect themselves. No, they don’t wear hard hats, but they have developed
the ability to bore down into solid rock, creating an even safer shelter than a
shell. Their foot can secrete chemicals that erode the rock, allowing the clam
to rub its own shell slowly down into a hole. And when the clam grows
bigger, it will just bore some more into the rock until its shelter fits just
right. And by having clams bore holes into rocks, rocks break down more
easily, creating more sand, which replenishes beaches that lose sand to
erosion. A clam’s life is anything but boring!
Mussels are also specially adapted for the intertidal environment. They
produce protein adhesive strings called byssal threads that allow them to
attach firmly to rocks, pilings and other surfaces. So when the tides come in
mussels don’t have to muscle their way against the waves, but rather they
can sit back and relax while filter feeding on plankton through their gills.
On land, plants adapt to different environments, providing diverse
opportunities for different animals and humans to find food or shelter.
Diversity increases diversity!
Oak trees, like kelp, are one of the many architects in nature that provide
animals and even humans with shelter and food. Oak trees have been
known to stand as high as 350 feet and live for hundreds of years, providing
animals like squirrels with homes in their canopy and with acorns for food.
In addition, oaks help humans by creating oxygen via photosynthesis, wood
for building things, and tannin as a medical antiseptic. Humans and
squirrels, in turn, help the oak survive. Squirrels sometimes forget where
they buried their acorns and thus plant new oak trees. Humans’ exhalation
releases carbon dioxide, needed by oaks to grow through photosynthesis.
Flowers use nectar to attract insects to carry their pollen to other plants,
enabling flowers to reproduce and create more flowers for future bees. In a
sense, insects are like the postal workers - delivering their pollen packages
to fertilize flowers, enabling these plants to successfully reproduce.
These California Buckbrush or Ceanothus flowers not only attract insects,
they caught the attention of the native Chumash people who once lived off
the lands of El Capitan Canyon. The Chumash used the Ceonothus flowers
for hair and body shampoo by rubbing the flowers with water to form a
These Toyon berries were also used and eaten by the native Chumash
people, as well as by many animals. Toyons use their color, just like the
nudibranch under water, to call attention to themselves. In this case
they want to attract predators instead of repelling them because the
predators will eat the fruit and carry away the seeds to make more trees
elsewhere. Very clever!
Just like underwater, poop is not waste. This coyote scat is full of seeds that
have not only been transported by the coyote but also packaged in
fertilizer, giving seeds the best chance to sprout. So on land as in the sea,
there is no waste in nature and biodiversity provides many species with
different jobs to help sustain their communities.
As a demonstration of the value of biodiversity, Ambassadors at El
Capitan Canyon work together on challenge activities. It is important
to have stronger people, lighter people, taller people, and shorter
people all working together!
4. Everything Is
The fourth Ambassadors of the
Environment principle is that
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.
Humans are connected to
nature, the ocean is connected
to the land, and everyone -
human, animal, plant - is
connected to the future
preservation and health of the
Kelp forests in the ocean are connected to the land, creeks, and to other
animals. Sometimes kelp is washed onto shore where it decomposes
and provides food for many little beach critters AND replenishes the
nutrients in the sand and soil of the beach.
This amphipod loves to munch on the kelp that washes to shore!
Amphipods (or beach hoppers) are great recyclers for the beach –
having more than 8000 species around the world, they help beaches
around the world stay clean by eating all the decomposing algae.
As the beach hoppers munch on the dead kelp, they break the algae
down into micronutrients. These micronutrients become available to
fertilize the growth of more algae, while the beach hoppers also become
part of a new cycle as they get gobbled up by hungry sea gulls. Then
when seagulls poop, their digested organic matter becomes fertilizer for
plants and trees along the coast, supplying terrestrial ecosystems with
valuable nutrients. Isn’t it great that plants and animals on land can get
free food and fertilizer from seagull poop? And it is all thanks to kelp!
Natural fertilizers are great for the plants and even the ocean. When
artificial fertilizers are used, inorganic chemicals leach into the ground
and wash into watersheds and flow through our creeks, eventually
running down into our oceans. When these chemicals enter our
watersheds and oceans, they pollute and can sometimes kill the
animals and plants that live in these ecosystems.
That’s why organic farms, like the one right above the El Capitan
campground, are great! They use natural pesticides and fertilizers rather
than harmful, synthetic ones.
Sand crabs are very sensitive to the pollution of the oceans. Sand crabs
are an indicator species, meaning that their presence or absence
indicates the health of the ocean. If you have lots of sand crabs then the
ocean is probably healthy.
Only 33mm in size, the sand crab is not only an important indicator
species but also a food source for both fish and birds and sometimes sea
So if there were no sand crabs due to pollution in the oceans, then there
might be some hungry fish, birds, and sea otters who would have to start
looking somewhere else for food.
Like in the ocean, there are indicator species in creeks. The creek in El
Capitan Canyon is home to various invertebrate larvae that are very
sensitive to pollution and therefore indicate creek health. Based on how
many of the indicator species are present, Ambassadors can assess
whether the creeks at El Capitan have good or poor water quality.
Happily, they are of very good quality!
So what would
cause the creek
and ocean waters
chemical that is
used or dumped
from the tops of
the mountains or
on land will flow
into the water
ultimately end up
in the sea.
The term for the collecting basin from which all the water comes is called a
watershed. So when pesticides, fertilizers, toxic waste, motor oil, etc. are
released into the environment, even far from the sea, they are likely to be
washed to the sea where marine life and even humans go for food.
At El Capitan Ambassadors see
how the sun is connected to life
and life is connected to oceans,
mountains, beaches, creeks,
and even the campsite. These
connections are vital to the
sustainability of our planet!
The Ambassadors Of the Environment program includes a game called
The Web of Life, and it’s all about connections. Each person chooses a
creature and thinks of how it is connected to the one across the circle.
Eventually we see that every creature is connected to the others, as is
represented by the rope. With all the species healthy and connections
strong, the web of life can support people.
However, when one creature
goes extinct or declines in
health, the effects ripple
through the entire web of life,
weakening the integrity of the
web and compromising its
ability to support the human
race. It is for this reason we
need to preserve our
environment and keep it
Here is a summary of the Four Principles. As we saw,
these four simple rules have many applications. They
can show humans how to better imitate nature and
live in harmony with it, moving from a lifestyle of
destruction and waste to one of sustainability.
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
In addition to learning these
facts about nature, the
Ambassadors program is all
about appreciating nature.
This is easy in such a
Before Ambassadors say goodbye to El Capitan Canyon and the AOTE
staff, they take time to write down their memories and a personal pledge
on a postcard. They pledge to do something as an Ambassador of the
Environment for the environment. Their commitments range from
starting composting projects and community gardens to writing their
political leaders about important issues.
When they receive their postcards in the mail, they are reminded of
their pledge and that the Ambassadors web site has lots of useful
information to help them with our action projects. In fact, this slide
show can be downloaded to use in educating others about the
Ambassadors of the Environment Program and about sustainable living.
After experiencing the Ambassadors of the Environment program at El
Capitan Canyon, students are empowered to embark on their own
environmental journeys, representing the interests of the global
environment wherever they go!