Santa Barbara Black and Blue

Along the American Riviera, azure skies and cerulean seas blend into a color known as Santa Barbara Blue. It is a favorite of local artists and architects, who apply it liberally to highlight the natural splendor of California’s Côte d’Azur. Distressingly; however, Santa Barbara also knows another color, a dark and sinister bully that rides into town wearing a black leather jacket.


Original Union Oil Company building, Santa Paula, now California Oil Museum

This hazardous hooligan is crude oil, who promises wealth, prosperity, and cheap gasoline prices for our SUVs. Despite its torment on the environment, petroleum is a natural substance, lurking just below the surface here in great and valuable abundance. Since it was so bountiful and reachable here, the first commercially successful oil well in the western United States was drilled only 60 miles east of Santa Barbara.


Coal Oil Point and Ellwood Oil Field Platform

Mercilessly, there is an oil spill every day off the coast of Santa Barbara. About one million gallons of crude oil per year naturally leak out of cracks in the sea floor off nearby Coal Oil Point. With over 2,000 active seafloor vents, it is the second largest natural offshore oil seep area on Earth.


Solidified oil on Carpinteria State Beach

The bubbling crude from the natural seeps produces an oil slick on the ocean that weathers into tar balls, which wash up on the area beaches, and occasionally leave black smudges on your bare feet. Except for that small gooey inconvenience, we found the Santa Barbara beaches remarkably clean, exceptionally lovely, and very popular with surfers, sunbathers, and sandcastle builders.


Active oil seep on Tar Pits Beach, Carpinteria

One day, as we strolled down captivating Carpinteria Beach, we noticed jet black crude oil oozing right out of the sandstone bluff and onto the beach. The Chumash Indians collected this thick petroleum to seal their canoes and the Spanish used it for roofing Mission Santa Barbara.


World’s first offshore drilling, Summerland (photo credit:

In 1896, to exploit this useful commodity, the world’s first offshore oil well was drilled off the end of a pier in Summerland, about five miles down the coast from Santa Barbara. Today, the well caps are leaking on some of these old nearshore wells, and Summerland Beach is closed due to the toxic vapors and other hazardous effects of the escaping oil.


Dos Cuadras Oil Field, site of 1969 spill, Channel Islands in background

In 1969, Santa Barbara Blue was painfully bruised by a major offshore spill, when a Union Oil Company well suffered an uncontrolled blowout. Until the well was capped 11 days later, about five million gallons of crude oil had flowed into the ocean. The black gummy oil fouled 35 miles of beaches along the Santa Barbara coast and the Channel Islands, and killed thousands of birds and numerous marine mammals.


1969 Santa Barbara oil spill (photo credit: Community Environmental Council)

The Santa Barbara oil spill was the largest in United States history at the time, only eclipsed now by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The terrible ecological damage led to a moratorium on new drilling in state waters, awakened the modern environmental movement, and inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to create the first Earth Day celebration the following spring.


Former oil refinery, Ventura County

Despite the heightened environmental awareness and limits on additional drilling, that slick and slippery villain continues its attacks. As recently as May 2015, a corroded petroleum pipeline along the narrow coastal terrace above Refugio State Beach ruptured, failed to automatically shut-off, and spilled over 140,000 gallons of oil.


The gooey black menace

For all its charm and excellence, the American Riviera has taken an environmental pounding from the prized and prolific reserves of crude oil lying in wait beneath its bright and vibrant surface. Oil from natural undersea seeps, leaking caps on old offshore wells, and disastrous spills have left Santa Barbara Blue with one beauty of a black eye.


I have to wash my paws!

Blogger’s Note: This post concludes our first year of month-at-a-time travel. This weekend, we are heading home to spend the holidays with our family and friends. We have enjoyed blogging about our adventures, and have met the most kind and interesting writers and travelers along the way. Thanks for following us, reading our articles, and sharing your comments. We plan to continue the blog, so until our next post, we will see you on the computer.

10 thoughts on “Santa Barbara Black and Blue

  1. Wow! I remember the oil spill in the late 60s (or, maybe I remember my parents talking about it), but I was unaware of all the oil history. I’ve visited Summerland several times, mostly to have lunch and wonder around as we passed through the area, but never thought to visit the beach… good thing, apparently!

    I’ll miss the tales of your monthly travels, but glad to read that you will continue to post. Have a safe drive home!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I vaguely remember the ’69 spill too. Seeing all those birds covered in oil on TV is hard to forget. I am one of those weird persons who is interested in the history of the oil industry. Normal people like you travel to this beautiful part of California for the great weather, quaint beach towns, lunch spots, and wine tasting.

    Thank you for your interest in our blog and for sharing your local travel experiences with us, over the past year. Es and I greatly appreciate your advice and input, and hope you have an enjoyable holiday season.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea there was such a problem with oil spills and leaks in the Santa Barbara area! That’s horrible anywhere, but it seems especially tragic in an area with so much natural beauty. I hope that one day we can stop being dependent on oil, and that they can figure out a way to stop the leaks from the pipes that are already there. Our environment can only take so much abuse.
    And congrats on one year of blogging! I’ve enjoyed your stories and photos. Enjoy the holidays, and I look forward to reading new posts when you return to your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right, Ann. The Earth is patient and resilient, but will push back if we keep abusing it. I share your hope for a future where we are dependent upon sunny days and steady winds to power our civilization. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. It has been a pleasure getting to know you through your blog. Happy holidays to you, and see you on the computer. P.S., It sure was nice to get home last night and sleep in our own bed!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Jo, for making me aware of the controversy along the southern coast of Portugal. I just read an article in the Algarve Daily News that discussed Repsol’s interest in deepwater oil and gas exploration there. The Algarve coast has become such an important tourist area since I visited there, while in college in 1984. It is difficult to imagine offshore oil platforms in clear sight of those clean and beautiful beaches.


  5. I love Santa Barbara and cringe as I read of the oil spills (didn’t realize they still occur so often). I lived for man years in the SF Bay area and drove down to SB for a beautiful weekend Thanks for blogging about this – and the photos are magnificent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pam. We loved Santa Barbara too. The problem with the oil in Santa Barbara is that it is so shallow. It even bubbles naturally out of the ground. It is dark and scary stuff, but not as terrifying as Old Mr Barker.


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