Spring is the windiest time of year on the Central Coast. Spring winds begin in March, increase in April and reach their peak in May. Afternoon wind speeds of 25 to 40 mph are common. Air temperatures are in the 60s, but the wind chill can make it seem much cooler. Windsurfers and kiteboarders certainly know how to enjoy the breeze as they perform stunning acrobatics across the ocean’s surface.
Spring winds create whitecaps and wind waves, cause the birds to fly sideways and make havoc with our allergies. Then the coastal fog comes in, leaving us with May Gray and June Gloom. Long or short, curly or straight, May’s combination of wind and fog does a number on the hair. I might grumble about May’s weather if I weren’t so deeply aware of its effect on the ocean.
Spring winds are important to the marine ecosystem. The movement of the wind across the ocean’s surface is so powerful that it stirs the water all the way to the bottom and sends sediments spiraling upward. Coastal waters become darker and murkier as they mix with sand and decomposed material from the ocean’s depths. These sediments contain nutrients — vitamins, minerals and salts — that feed ocean organisms.
The day length in May increases to more than 12 hours of daylight. This combination of nutrient-rich water and the sun’s energy is a perfect recipe for the growth of marine plants and algae.
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Kelp forests thrive this time of year, and can add a foot or more per day to their long, sinuous fronds. If you walk on San Simeon pier and look at the kelp, you may notice that it gets longer and fuller every week. The thick kelp creates an ideal home for fish, crabs and other marine life. Diatoms and marine plankton absorb nutrients from the water and multiply rapidly. Soon coastal waters will have a greenish tinge, an indicator of the density of microscopic green plants. It is no coincidence that California’s shellfish harvest season closes May 1. The date is associated with the rapid growth and increase of planktonic ocean organisms, some of which are harmful to eat.
The profusion of marine plants and algae provides food for the plant eaters of the sea. Urchins, sea snails, limpets and tiny zooplankton begin to proliferate. Fish and seabirds are drawn to the increased food supply. As the months go by, the ocean becomes laden with food for larger animals. By August, we’ll see feeding frenzies of dolphins, seals, sea lions and whales all taking advantage of the ocean’s bounty.
All that summertime abundance is thanks to the winds of spring. If they didn’t stir up nutrients from the deep ocean in May, there would be no food for the dolphins, whales and other sea life in August. Somehow, knowing that makes putting up with May’s wind and fog seem worthwhile after all.