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Local News

Seeps Tour Provides a Peek at Natural Oil and Gas Leaks

Venoco voyages to Coal Oil Point include science and geology lessons — and an escort of dolphins

There is a colorful side of Santa Barbara many don’t know about. Out in the Santa Barbara Channel, at several locations along the coast, oil and gas seepage turns the ocean’s surface into a color palette of metallic shades and makes the water sparkling.

The seeps are the earth’s natural leakage of crude oil and gas. The gas escapes from eroding sedimentary rock through cracks in the Pacific floor, producing copious amounts of bubbles and turning the water fizzy.

While this environmental pollution is often believed to be associated with oil and gas drilling, the phenomenon is natural and has been going on for millions of years.

According to the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, natural oil seeps are responsible for the largest amount of oil in the marine environment, nearly 50 percent. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of crude oil is released daily from the seeps off Coal Oil Point near UCSB.

On a clear and sunny Saturday morning, a group of 85 people, ranging from young children to seniors, boarded the Condor Express at Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbor.

The tour, which is sponsored by Venoco Inc., a local energy company, is often accompanied a few miles later by finned escorts — and this voyage was no exception. Leading and joining the vessel in front and side-by-side, a pod of dolphins entertained the passengers by jumping lively, causing a flocking by the deck railing, with fingers pointing and excited shouting to overcome the deafening wind.

“I’m a motor at heart,” said Jack Kisch, 83, who’s taken the tour twice before. “It’s just interesting to go out and see what’s happening out there.”

Marybeth Carty, Venoco’s community relations coordinator, says the company has been conducting the 1½-hour seep tours for 10 years.

“Our objective to making the tour available was to educate the public about this phenomenon that occurs right in our backyard,” Carty said. “And, it is completely a natural phenomenon, and not a byproduct of the oil industry, which a lot of people are not aware of.”

Steve Greig, Venoco’s government relations manager, has been the narrator on the seep tours since they started. He said occasional seasickness is the only bad thing that have occurred on the tours.

During the Saturday morning tour, Greig kept passengers informed about objects they could see on each side of the Condor Express while cruising along the coast past Venoco’s Platform Holly to Coal Oil Point and back to the harbor.

Students from Rincon High School in Carpinteria and kids from the Santa Barbara Charter School HomeBased Partnership made up the majority of students who went along for the ride to learn about the seeps.

“I loved it,” said Tyree Brown, 17, of Rincon High School. “Nice view ... enjoyed Mother Nature.”

“I liked seeing the oil rig, because I’ve never seen one up that close,” said 11-year-old Micah Condie of the Ocean Guardians Class at Santa Barbara Charter School. “I also liked the dolphins.”

Condie’s friend and classmate, Steven Holm, 11, said he learned where oil comes from, and said he would consider going again, but not until “next year, or so.”

First-time rider Bonnie Ladd, 70, said she would like to go on the tour again and that she hopes to take her grandchildren with her next time.

“I think it’s great to see the area I live in from a different perspective, you know,” she said. “Most people don’t realize about the natural seeps and they blame it on the oil companies quite often.”

Venoco conducts the tours in June and September. For more information on next year’s tours, contact Carty at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Noozhawk intern Gabriella Slabiak can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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