flickr image by willsfca
The Gulf catastrophe brings back memories of Santa Barbara
In late January 1969, I was living in Goleta, California, just west of
Santa Barbara and a few miles north of Summerland.
I got home from school to learn that there had been an oil spill in the
Channel. It didn't seem that big a deal. The oil rig was six miles off
shore, and the images on our cheesy 1966 model color TV just didn't look
very threatening. In fact, I had to take their word for it that were was
even an oil slick there; I couldn't see one on the set. When I called my
girlfriend, we didn't talk about the oil spill. I was sixteen and only
had one overriding interest girls. She was 15, and learning how to
keep my hopes up without actually having to deliver anything. So we
didn't talk about oil spills.
The next morning at school, there was some talk about it in the morning.
I remember one girl, who called herself Rainbow, and who was a rather
mousy and tiresome sort who would go on so much about Vietnam that even
those of us who agreed with her started avoiding her. This morning, she
was railing about an ecological catastrophe, and how this would destroy
the southern California coastline forever.
We knew what a catastrophe was, since we had all lived through 1963 and
1968. We weren't quite sure what an "ecological" might be, or what it
had to do with some smelly old beaches where if you walked more than a
hundred feet, you got tar all over your feet.
One of the auto shop guys even said the oil spill was a good thing, that
it would break up some of the naturally occurring tar, just like in auto
shop you got grease off your hands by washing them in gasoline. Leaded
gasoline, which may have explained his reasoning.
By afternoon, it was becoming clear that something really horrible was
happening at the beaches. A rumor was going around that they had all
been painted black by the oil, and that millions of birds were dying.
Late in the afternoon, our teacher announced extra credit for anyone who
went down to the beaches and helped clean up the spill. I signed up.
I imagined that we would spend a few hours walking along with little
scoops and buckets, putting in some light work.
From the road, things didn't look that bad. East Beach wasn't black,
and the water, beyond it, looked normal. The only thing out of the
ordinary was the large number of people in the tidal zone, all doing
things with tools like rakes and shovels.
We walked down to where the activity was, and I saw for the first time
just how bad it was. The entire zone from high tide to low tide was jet
black, covered in inches of sticky, smelly black goo. There were long
ropy strands of the stuff that I later realized was kelp, covered
completely in crude oil.
A city worker handed me a big rake, and told me to start raking drifts
of black straw that had been laid out on the beach into piles for the
It was hard work. People think of straw as being light not when it's
completely soaked in semi-liquid tar. And the stuff was everywhere; I
knew that when I got home, my mom was going to read me the riot act
because I had completely ruined my school clothes.
At one point, a big pool of oil rode in right where we were. The gunk
was a couple of inches deep, and for the first time, you could really
see there was something terribly wrong with the sea water. Mostly the
oil was about one part in a million to salt water, and you really
couldn't see it in the waves.
But then the waves stopped being waves. Instead of rearing up and
breaking like they had for some three billion years, these waves,
crushed by oil, simply slithered in, flat, and when the water receded,
it did so in rivulets, between a new delta of black slime that it had
At one point, my rake hit something solid, and I pulled the straw from
around it. It was a dead sea lion pup, completely coated in oil.