Recovering Gaviota: A Generational Perspective on Oil Pollution and the Environment



Words and Photos, by David Pu’u                                                                                                     

“People protect what they love” Jacques Yves Cousteau

“How can people protect something which they do not know?” Jean Michel Cousteau, 2013

These words are emblazoned in my consciousness permanently. I saw the related concepts illustrated dramatically within the context of the recent Gaviota oil spill.

This stretch of coastline, extends from Goleta, to Lompoc in the North, and has long been my home.  I learned to surf at Refugio State Beach in 1967. Later in the 70’s after the Aerospace industry crash, and a short five month stint in Michigan where my Dad worked developing the airbag, we wound up living at Refugio when Ford canceled the project, over what it considered to be an economic impossibility, that of placing the airbag in every car.

Gaviota Coast Hwy

That would be the last job my Dad had for years. The family with six kids wound up living in a Ford Econoline van (the irony of that) and tent, alternating between the palm lined beach of Refugio campground and El Capitan campground, until eventually we were able to move into a duplex near Elwood beach.   The memory was such, that I still call those campgrounds home, to this day.

The area from coastline out to the Channel Islands and all the water in between, is something I have a very detailed and intimate understanding of, and interest in seeing be preserved for future generations to know, love and care for.

When I saw the headline on a Santa Barbara local free press paper about a massive oil spill at Refugio, one word was posted by me onto social media, four times: Dumb.

Reading up on news info posted online, I became aware that those reporting were not informed about the oily history of the Gaviota Coast, the oil industry, regulatory control, or the Ocean, much less how some of these factors managed to co exist for centuries..

Oil has always been here in California, and attracted minerals development interests in the 1930’s, who followed the obvious trail of methane and tar slicks to their sources and turned the coast into a complex swiss cheese series of holes, and morass of drilling-pumping infrastructure, prior to WW2.  Images from that era are shocking by today’s sensibilities. But the development was largely land based.

Oil Rig at Sunset

Oil drilling platforms were a technology  introduced later in the Santa Barbara Channel as most of the coastal land based  oil infrastructure was removed.  



Living and surfing in Goleta, it was an almost daily experience when the winds would shift onshore that we could smell the pungent odor of petrochemicals and an oil slick would eventually wash in and it became a choice, get tarred up, or go home.  We assumed it was from the oil development. (Turned out that it wasn’t)

During January 1969, in very similar fashion to the recent Gaviota Spill, we saw on the news that an oil platform  right offshore of where we lived, surfed and sailed, experienced what was called a blow out.  For a few days the ocean looked the same. But then the black tide became heavier, and made the waters unsurfable for all but a few, who decided to ride it out anyway.

That event which began occurred in January  was reputedly fixed in April. In the course of the disaster, volume was estimated at anywhere between 3 million and 4 million gallons of oil, along with massive volumes of methane,  had burped into the environment.

The industrial accident became an abject  lesson in what can occur when extreme pressures within the oil reserve, were not adequately  managed and compensated for by oil field developers, as multiple fissures opened up around Union Oil’s platform A, which lay approximately 6 miles west of the  Summerland oil field

The blow out was a screw up, and became the author of a steep curve learning process for Govt and Industry regarding oil field development and management. But many insiders suspect that it went on for longer than reported due to the pressures involved and inability to adequately seal the leaks with drilling mud. The total volume spilled was likely much higher than reported to the public. We did not see a lot of relief from the large increase in oil washing ashore, for a very long time.

In the wake of this incident, the Environmental movement was born, via the creation of an Org initially named Get Oil Out.  None of us wanted to argue about that, as the massive mess cost the ecosystem and towns on the coast a lot. Santa Barbara had already developed it’s identity  as a tourist destination and as the  Riviera of the West Coast..

It was a disaster which led to the creation of two regulatory control agencies, to be known as the EPA and the NOAA by Congress, signed in by then President Richard Nixon, into which were dumped far more millions of dollars than barrels of oil spilled.  As a Nation and community, we saw this as an appropriate investment, in order to secure both our Nation and future generation’s health and economic well being.

I got to be knowledgeable about much of that, having worked as a production manager for a Goleta packaging company who produced plastic packing materials, and then later in my surfboard manufacturing shop in Santa Barbara, when I agreed to become an industry participant in developing what eventually became the  data,  material, and eventually, air quality management rules for CARB, in California’s ongoing quest to reduce air and water pollution.

In a process which spanned decades, we saw huge shifts in how oil companies performed the dirty and hazardous business of oil development, transportation and processing. We also experienced a shift in how civilization used and managed petroleum based products, ranging from fuel, to a myriad number of synthetic polymers and related petro based products, which  form the foundational architecture for civilization’s needs.

Things slowly got better until somewhat recently, when a tipping point appears to have been reached and agencies became of greater significance than the problems which they were instituted to regulate.

As I endeavored to sort through the mess of conflicting information and reportage on the Gaviota spill, what struck me is that none of the reporters apparently knew of long established facts regarding the shocking amounts of oil and methane the Santa Barbara Channel oil fields have produced, since before the time of the ancient Chumash, who used the tar to seal their boats and augment their own civilization’s needs.

This seepage field was diligently studied by various Geology Dept professors and Graduate students at UCSB (which is centrally positioned amidst the oil field) and published as a series of peer reviewed papers.

A concurrent follow up study in 2007 by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, would re assert and augment the opinion (and knowledge base) that the ongoing seepages had over time, produced  in excess of 10-20 times the amount of oil released in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which was a 38 million gallon spill event.

The data produced in these studies provided a detailed understanding of how the marine ecosystem of the coastline has managed the injection of a volume of pollutant, which is so staggering in scale, that it is almost impossible to comprehend.

It also proved that the oil being pumped, came from the same reserve sources as the natural seepages.  Things were beginning to add up and paint a very different story about oil field development, for those who stayed on top of such things.


In process of study, some experiments were also conducted with the aid of the Petroleum industry. I recall watching the placement of two large pressure tents, which were massive pyramid structure,s onto the bottom off my home surf break of Sands, (Coal Oil Pt) in 1982.

In later years I had asked some of the guys I knew in the Oil biz, if those tents worked? They sort of smirked and said “Not really”.  So I assumed that to mean the massive project had been a failure. Failures did not surprise me at that point. I mean where I lived was awash in oil on a regular basis.

In the course of my research and observations in sorting out the data for this story,  chairman of the Land Use Committee for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, and local waterman Bob Hazard, enlightened me, when he told me that the capture of these tents was routed to the Venoco Elwood shore terminal, where the gas was processed, odorized and sent to market. The amount of emissions reduction equaled over ¼ of all the air pollution emissions in SB!  We were actively converting pollution albeit naturally occurring pollution, to fuel.

In 1989 a new drilling project off nearby Platform Holly tapped into the same gas pocket and as it began mining the reserve, production from the seepage tents dropped to zero. It was why the oilfield guys laughed when I had asked about the tents.

This confirmed what some suspected: that the pressure within the oil reserve, could be lowered by removing the methane gas and oil. The very industry whose existence launched a thousand environmental NGO’s,  and which was the subject of acrimony and hatred, was actually cleaning up an “unsolveable”, ongoing, centuries old massive oil spill.

That is not a story which many of those folks will want to hear, as incomes, careers and fortunes had been amassed based on Regulatory Control dollars and donations to environmental groups who had pledged to regulate and-or kill all oil field and industrial development.

Which brings us back to the Gaviota spill. I was grieved when I saw that black wave wash ashore at Refugio, where my wife Donna and I were married 2 years ago in a ceremony created and performed by both Hawaiians and Chumash, and attended by the ocean community.  It is a sacred place.  My eyes teared up at the thought of this spill and knowledge of the potential ramifications.


El Capitan, just South of Refugio. Refugio is the ground zero for the oil spill

This was to become the biggest spill event since the 1969 Union platform A disaster. But I knew that it would be nothing like that episode, since this one was on land and the volume was a mere fraction in size of the prior. But I also knew that we had improved since that date in every way. I mean if we had not, then why are billions of dollars spent to support the EPA, NOAA , (and now BOEM) and emergency response plans and services every year since 1969?

 I understand what pollution is and does, and what remediation takes. There is a lot of enlightenment that dawns, when one embraces the following axiom.

Simply annotated: Pollution is a resource out of place. Pollution and its related toxity, are resolved via dilution.

Although I did acquire a detailed understanding on the mechanics and architecture of this spill event, I do not have enough space to detail them here. I spent a lot of time in research and several days in field observations between Refugio and Naples Point ,which is pretty much where the entire event transpired,.

I watched crews work, walked and photographed the coastline, with my friend Blue Wolf, who is a Federal Forest Service observer and Chumash expert on local flora and fauna.  He and I were greatly encouraged by what we found. No thousands of dead dolphins, seals, birds and fish as was being reported by various sources. Just an oil spotted coastline, which quite obviously was going to rebound rapidly from the oil spill.

It looked very much as it did when I was a child.  In recent years much of the tar and pitch had disappeared, due to the lessening of seepage rates. People had only the recent decade as a barometer, so the knee jerk reaction and finger pointing was understandable.

The Gaviota spill sent the area backwards, but this would be a temporary setback in what has been a generational relaxation of the impact of oil pollution on our biome.

All my life I have heard people excuse the channel based seepages as if they were okay, by using this term “they are natural”. Well so is poison oak but if one has the chance to eradicate it in one’s backyard, would that not be prudent? Just because oil pollution is a multigenerational main stay by no means makes it healthy or anything other than what it is: pollution.  Try sailing through one of those massive natural slicks on a light wind day, you will experience my point. Unhealthy.

Refugio kelp beds

The manner in which this pipeline spill impacted and spread is possibly best understood if one examines the event as a bomb drop. The impact was 250 yards inland  and located almost exactly 1.1 miles N of  Refugio State beach at the top of a hilly rise. It all landed there in a big black stain. But as one proceeds out and away from the impact zone, the oil presence diminishes in an exponential way.

Two miles away, there is a lot less oil in evidence. By five miles out, it is dramatically less. By ten, less,  and so on.  That is the combined effect of dilution and weathering, which eventually has the oil not captured or sopped up by crews, sinking and being returned to CHON and sulfur, by microbial communities, or sticking to coastal structures.

In a nutshell this spill was an accident. A large volume of oil flushed into the ocean and then a mile down coast, on the next tide and wind change, came ashore covering and temporarily suffocating everything in a high VOC black mélange of crude oil mix, that was a scant few days prior, on it’s way to market for use in the production of tires, asphalt and synthetic polymer products. It is not fuel oil crude. It is infrastructure crude. And removing it, is a business  that in so many ways, which we all really would do well to get a grasp on the scope of.

Quite honestly, the spill details really do not factor in at the moment, as this once in 46 year spill event, will be managed by our people, cleaned up, and progress will be made in securing against repeated ecological damage of this type occurring in  future.

In  knowledge there is understanding. That is the way forward, and one of the reasons that Jean Michel Cousteau’s words and intent gaze, really cemented in my mind, what we are all to do. Learn the ocean, love it, engage in actions that make sense, and lead to real and sustainable progress and health, for where we live.

This is a war we are engaged in. A war for enlightenment and ecological and industrial progress.

The German Philosopher Goethe wrote a guideline that makes sense  to me: “Divide and rule the Politician cries. Unite and lead is watchword of the wise”

Let’s do this:

Unite, and lead the change to stop our oceans from being the sewers of Humanity, not solely in the case of oil pollution, but in all manageable waste and byproducts of human activity.

We do this by learning to make sense of those things which we do not understand, and improving how we supply our civilization’s needs. Benefit is not forthcoming through killing hard earned and expensive historic progress, by acting like children.

I was grievously embarrassed this past week in watching the manipulation of the public by people who though possibly well meaning, appear largely ignorant of what for many of us is a home as welcoming as that of our living and bed rooms.

Calamity helps to provide an opportunity for introspection and movement towards a new horizon.

We have come a long way since the Chumash  presided over the resources of this region. Let’s at the least, honor this place by approaching it with a duty of care matching theirs. The future of the Ocean and our Nation are at stake here. If we get this right, we prove ourselves capable, and as being a people who can matter in the disposition of this blue marble we visit, as she spins through space and time.

David Pu’u is an internationally recognized Photographer, Cinematographer and Writer, with experience ranging from news and magazine editorial work, fashion and brand development, to television and feature film production.
He holds certification as a Rescue Boat Operator and First Responder via K38 Maritime and AWA, and is trained in Risk Assessment  and Mitigation, in marine environments.
He has worked as a creative and advisor in think tank project environments at ARUP, the Sea-Space Initiative, the ongoing Neuroscience Project: Blue Mind, and the Seth Godin based marketing group: Triiibes.

You can contact Mr. Pu’u at:

Art Sales:
CEO: Oceanohana Inc.
Licensing: Getty Images

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