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Life As Art: Collecting & Preserving Macro-Algae



by Bob Fenner


How many ways can you enjoy the aquatic world? It's seemingly endless. Would you like to expand your wet horizons? Even though you may have covered most all the available floor space with tanks, no doubt there's still some area left on walls for fishy paraphernalia.

You can be an artist. Collecting and mounting macro-algae (& plants) is simple, fun, and looks great. This bio-art is extremely long lasting; some postcards made from these materials are still in good shape after more than a hundred years!

The Players:

The algae are photosynthetic organisms often considered as 'simple' plants. Unlike 'true plants' algae lack vascular systems (remember xylem and phloem from high school botany?), nutrient-absorbing roots and flowering reproduction. Their group name (the sub-phylum) Thallophyta meaning "all about the same plant body" aptly describes the lack of specialization of their cells.

What two groups of algae produce the vast majority of oxygen on this planet? I'll give you a hint, they're microscopic. Diatoms and dinoflagellates. Most algae are tiny, but some are true giants; some of the red and brown algae called kelp or seaweeds are tens of feet long.

For aquarists, algae function as food, habitat, COXP and nutrient absorbers, as the parasite Amyloodinium, oxygen producand more... they are gorgeous in life and death. Algae come in more colors than the rainbow; all types of greens, browns, reds, blue, & yes, even purple.

For humans altogether, the algae have enormous practical economic use; as food, important food additives (stabilizers, emulsifiers...), culture media (Agars, et al.), and lots more. So much more that we'll cover the various groups and their uses systematically in other articles. Let's stick to algae as art here.


Where: anywhere water is found. Pretty easy eh? For the very devious, just down to the local fish store. The marine macro- (as opposed to micro-) algae are found near-shore, shallow to @ 200 feet deep water.

Don't favor getting your tootsies wet? You can check out and time your excursions to the beach with low tide and wave reports, or utilize the broken off material called the drift, as in do you get my, that washes up onto the shore.

For you truly adventurous Mike Nelson types (boy, am I dating myself now!) there is scuba and snorkel collecting.

About licensing; in many places somebody's uncle Sam and his minions want to regulate and tax the use of this resource too. You'll want to cooperate with local enforcement agencies like Fish & Game. If/when/where in doubt, call the usual suspected bureaucracy.

Tools of the trade for collecting include secure shoes you don't mind getting wet, long pants to avoid abrasion and the rest of typical clothing, ointments to resist weathering. A small blunt knife and bucket or plastic bag for your 'riches from the sea' is requisite. Note here: you want small good-looking specimens that will fit in one piece on your mounting paper, not the kelp-monster that ate Jersey.

Keep your specimens moist, maybe in closable bags, in a bucket, cooler or authentic 'fish box'. Maintaining your catch at low temperature will preserve it for a few days before mounting, but don't refrigerate algae as this speeds up deterioration.

Materials & Tools Needed:

1) Mounting paper: you can get official stuff from office, art and biological supply outlets, but cut up file folders, index card material works fine.

2) Plate glass to support the paper and algae while drying. If you're going to display your living art in frames, you may want to get the type with glass in the front to use for this purpose. Be careful; those glass edges are sharp.

3) A large shallow pan for floating and arranging your specimens. A plastic tray or baking pan works great for this.

4) Lots of newspaper for soaking up the excess water that's squeezed out of the mounts.

5) Pieces of cloth, or wax paper for placing over the algae so it doesn't stick to the newspapers. Note to the wise and otherwise, check with your significant other(s) before cutting up sheets.

6) Scissors and tweezers for cutting material and arranging specimens.

7) Boards or stiff cardboard for placing above and below newspaper-algae sandwich.

8) Weights (plenty o' fish tomes?) for placing on top.

9) Algae of course.

Method/Steps to Completion:

A) Rinse the algae clean, float and spread it out in your shallow pan. Some folks like to use seawater for marine specimens to better preserve color and shape.

B) Underlay the arrangement with your mounting paper and glass. I strongly suggest placing a coin (or something) between the glass and tray to facilitate the glass's removal.

C) Organize the algae to conform with your ideals of beauty; you know, make it pretty.

D) Carefully remove the glass, paper and arrangement and drain off excess water.

E) Place in toto onto newspaper and cover with cloth. Cover cloth with more newspaper.

F) Move all this to a relatively undisturbed flat spot and place between cardboards.

G) Stack suitable Brittanicas (the books, not the CD), et al. on top to press flat.

H) Go away and come back every half day or so and remove/replace newspaper.

I) Leave the cloth on till specimens completely dry.

J) That's it, you're done, except for trimming the paper and placing the whole kit and kaboodle into a frame.

K) Or on semi-last thought maybe you're not. Wouldn't it be wise to record the common and scientific names, where/when the specimen(s) were collected, and any other pertinent information on the collecting paper? Okay.

Postcards made from nature use to be 'the rage'; many were constructed from algal material. Try some of these if you're giving algae mounting a go. Use notecards of whatever size for mounting substrate and instead of passively drying by covering and waiting, place waxpaper over the cloth (which is over the algae) and iron (hot, but not super hot) the specimen flat & dry. These nifty mounts can be touched up and added-to to resemble forests, reefs, scenes from planet X... Add a message, address and stamp on the back and voila, you're a postcard Picasso.

Other Than Hoi Polloi Stuff:

A few asides here for the type 'A's of the pet-fish world. For the grey poupon crowd who think their algae may be museum bound; yes, these may be spread and pressed on herbarium paper with a quality high rag content. You may use specifically intended 'drying felt' instead of cloth and newspaper for drying. If you've got big bucks you can order all this and even an ACME standard plant press from biological supply houses. Check your local yellow pages, you big tycoon.

Finish with a Flourish:

Unique, personal expressions and spiffy gifts that are simple to produce and last virtually forever... these are macro-algae mounts. Remember this next time you find yourself wondering what to do with excess aquarium material, or a trip to the ocean.

Can these procedures be adapted, adopted for freshwater algae, and 'true' vascular plants? You betcha.

Where I Learned All This Stuff And You Can Too Section:

Dawson, E. Yale. 1966. Seashore Plants of Southern California. U.C. Press.

Dawson, E. Yale. 1966. Marine Botany, An Introduction. Holt, Winehart, Winston, Inc.

Fenner, Robert, 1990. Macroalgae for marine aquaria. Pet Dealer 2/10.

Fenner, Robert, 1990. Ornamental marine algae: how to raise & market it. Pet Dealer 10/90.

McPeak, Ronald H. Dale A. Glantz, Carole R. Shaw. 1988. The Amber Forest. Beauty and Biology of California's Submarine Forests. Watersport Publishing Inc.

New Print and eBook on Amazon

Marine Aquarium Algae Control

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

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