Friday, January 19 , 2018, 11:03 pm | Fair 55º


Captain’s Log: Santa Barbara Channel’s Oil Patch — Is it a Spill or Seepage?

Nearshore waters off of Isla Vista and Ellwood are often an oily mess, with widespread oil sheens and long lines of dirty crud.

Many times over the years I’ve heard boaters new to the area radio the U.S. Coast Guard that they have discovered an oil spill. When they announce their position, boaters with local experience chuckle softly and say, “Here we go again.”

Oil sheens, which are very colorful in nature since they reflect nearly the entire spectrum of colors, are from new oil that has seeped up through the seafloor, slowly floated up to the surface, then spread out into a thin rainbow sheen.

Over a few days, the sun dries it out and most of its colorful sheen is lost. Then wind and currents move it around and forms it up into those long, dirty-looking lines. Eventually, some of it ends up on the beaches to stick to our feet.

My charterboat, WaveWalker, has been chartered numerous times for research trips to study the characteristics of the natural seepage. My boat has also been chartered for photography trips to take pictures and present shows.

The sheen and the natural gas bubbles are the subject of some of the most incredible photos and slides I’ve ever seen. That’s saying something since I’ve published probably 1,000 photos in my time.

If you were a young oil company nearly a century ago and saw how much natural seepage is here, wouldn’t you think it is a great place to drill?

The oil industry history of the Santa Barbara area is well known and most vestiges of shoreline derricks and docks and piers have been carefully removed. But what has not changed much is the amount of natural oil seepage we have.

The oil patch has not always been considered negative or problematic. In the early years, it brought some prosperity to the region.

I’ve heard that less than 100 years ago, Santa Barbara put out a tourist marketing campaign extolling the virtues of our “therapeutic airs,” referring to the fact that the oil patch is upstream from us under prevailing wind patterns.

Anyone who walks the beaches at Isla Vista and Ellwood soon discovers the need for about 20 minutes of scrubbing feet with WD40, lighter fluid, or with the cool little packets of wipes named Oil Slick we carry at Hook, Line & Sinker fishing center.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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