Last Tuesday, an onshore pipeline belonging to the Texas-based oil company Plains All American burst, spewing roughly 105,000 gallons of crude down a storm drain and into an undeveloped stretch of coastline just north of Santa Barbara. We wanted to get a closer look at the environmental impacts, and do what we could to help clean up so we spent a couple days volunteering around the spill area, and soon a baby elephant seal would be thanking us.
Ground zero for the spill occurred near Refugio State beach and El Capitan State beaches. These areas have been completely closed off to the public. Armed guards patrol these areas keeping the public's prying eyes away, and focused on other issues while trained clean up crews work to clean the beaches and shorelines around these state parks. It's unclear if these guards were hired by the oil company for the public's safety, or if they have more to hide on those beaches, or both.
North and south of those two beaches there are pockets of concerned citizens volunteering to clean up the oil company's mess. That's where our mission begins.
The spill affects an approximately 20 mile stretch of coast from Arroyo Hondo beach stretching south nearly to UCSB. This region of the Santa Barbara Chanel that stretches from the coast out to the Channel Islands is often called the “Galapagos of the north” for its ecological richness and diversity. The channel offers habitat to porpoises, dolphins, seals and sea lions, in addition to serving as a migratory passage for blue and humpback whales and a range of birds.
South of the spill is a 9 mile stretch of privately owned coastline with no public access. Being somewhat local to the area, We knew of a couple surf spots located in that stretch, but getting to them requires a pretty solid hike.
After a couple hours hike in we finally made it up into some usually pristine isolated beaches, only to be shocked by what we saw. Oil everywhere.. Beaches and rocks stained and sprinkled with raw crude oil. But the most depressing sight was the number of wildlife affected by the spill. We saw dozens of birds and pelicans with completely black oil slicked under bellies and beaks, and a number of dead pelicans and even a seal lifeless on these beaches.
This stretch of coastline is a wildlife preserve. Seals and other animals love these beaches because they are still relatively unimpacted by humans because of the lack of development and public access. It was great to see some other dedicated locals working to clean the oil of the sand so the wildlife could have their beaches back.
Bucket by bucket we hauled small chunks of oil stained sand off the beach. Then racked any other debri or small bits of oil into piles to be shoveled off and removed. This process was repeated hundreds of times at various hidden beaches by dozens of concerned citizens, including ourselves. But still the tide brings more chunks of crude oil onto the beaches with every pull from the moon. After cleaning a small cove to the best of our ability we decided to hike even further north up the beach towards ground zero in search of marine life in distress. This is where we found our Elephant seal pup covered in oil and barely clinging to life.
Elephant seals are protected species. Their populations were dwindled down to a few due to commercial fishing in the early 1900s. Since then their populations have been rising, but they are still endangered. We knew it was important to get this elephant seal pup help asap. We called Wildlife Fish and Game, 911, and every other number those two organizations gave us. All our calls got the same response; "We are not sure we can get to you because our resources are maxed out". Apparently there are so many marine animals affected by the oil spill they can not all be rescued.
At that point we decided to split up. One of us went for help and I stayed with the seal. It would be over 3 hours until I saw another human. I spent that time trying to keep the seal alive. I tried cleaning the oil of it with a wet shirt but that was useless. The oil was caked on, Mostly around its head and eyes. I spent most of the time just sitting with it, talking to it and wiping it down with a wet shirt, just trying to keep it from slipping away. I even tried to reach out to the many oil company helicopters I saw flying overhead by writing messages in the sand. I felt like a shipwrecked survivor on an island trying to signal planes flying overhead with rescue messages written in the sand. None of my attempts were answered.
Northern elephant seals are the largest phocid, or "true" seal, in the Northern Hemisphere. Fully grown males can reach lengths of over 13 feet and can weigh nearly 4,400 pounds. Females are significantly smaller than males, but are also quite large growing to about 10 feet long and weighing up to 1,300 pounds. Pups are born in early winter from December to January. Northern elephant seal pups are about 4 feet long and weigh about 75 lbs at birth. Our seal was very dehydrated but i guessed still weighed around 120-150 lbs.
Elephant seal pups are very vulnerable during oil spills because the mother/pup bond is affected by the odor. Seals use smells to identify their young. If the mother cannot identify its pup by smell in the large colony it may not feed it or it might even reject attempts by the pup to suckle. This leads to starvation and abandonment. Oil will also attack exposed sensitive tissues. These include mucous membranes that surround the eyes and line the oral cavity, respiratory surfaces, anal and urogenital orifices. This can cause corneal abrasions, conjunctivitis and ulcers. Consumption of oil-contaminated prey will lead to the accumulation of hydrocarbons in tissues and organs. Hydrocarbons of oil are transferred rapidly to the bloodstream from the lungs and can damage red blood cells, suppress immune systems, strain the liver, spleen and kidneys and even interfere with the reproductive system of animals and humans.
My seal was running out of time. I could see death in her eyes when she looked at me. She knew it too. She begged me to do something with each gaze. It was gut wrenching to have her look at me and know we were both helpless right now. My anger at this disaster turned to sadness at the loss of life i was witnessing. I had been out there for hours after calling for help and was starting to think no one was coming. I considered carrying the seal, even tried to pick her up at one point, but i felt her weight and didn't think i could make it a few miles down the soft sand to civilization with her.
The tide was coming up and now I was starting to worry about my safety. There were a couple points along the hike where even at low tide the ocean was close to the bluffs. I took notice when i was walking out that if the tide got to high i would not be able to get around a couple points. The tide and the steep rock walls of the bluffs would close the door on me. We were out of time. I debated on my options, but I couldn't leave this little seal to die. So i stayed as the tide continued to rise.
From my vantage point I could see pretty far down the beach. I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I finally saw human movement along the beach about a half mile south of me a couple coves away. I took off towards them at a full run. Something told me they were our salvation. When I got close enough to them to read Marine mammal rescue on one of their shirts my heart filled with joy. Four amazing volunteers from the California Fish and Game and the California Wildlife Center had arrived to save the day. My seal had a chance.
I quickly debriefed them on the seal's condition and led them to her location. They confirmed it was a baby elephant seal and thought it was a female but could not confirm that because she was so dehydrated and emaciated.
We proceeded to load the seal into a large dog kennel and begin the long hike back down the beach. The Kennel had no real handles other then the lip where the top piece of the kennel fastens to the base, leaving not much more then finger tip grips on the side of the kennel. This seal was not light and as she moved around in the kennel the weight got even harder to deal with. My forearms were on fire as we slowly carried her to safety. It took us well over an hour or two to hike her out with regular stops to rest and drink water. Apparently I need to do more rock climbing because my forearms were sore for days after carrying our seal down the beach, up the bluffs and finally to the Fish and Game truck, where she was loaded and taken to a rescue center. There she will be cleaned, given food and fluids until she is strong enough to be returned to the wild.
We saved Her!
Thats the good news. The bad news is there are still hundreds of seals and birds covered in oil, and in need of help. The story is being grossly under played by the media and the powers that be. I saw on CNN yesterday they were reporting 1 Seal and 5 Pelicans had been killed so far and 1 Seal and 9 Pelicans had been rescued and were being treated for oil exposure. That is incorrect. I saw more then that with my own eyes. The environmental and economic damage from this spill and others like it around the world will be felt for decades. The oil companies and the media never give us the full truth. Thats why its important for concerned citizens to do whatever we can to hold these corporations accountable, Wether its helping on the ground volunteering at disaster points, writing your government officials, or just staying informed and spreading the word. You have a voice, use it and be heard. You alone can make a difference.