Black Tide

The oil didn’t seem so black until the tide carried it ashore.

From the bluffs above Santa Barbara, I watch in horror through my Boy Scout field glasses as the oil slick advances toward the beaches. Onshore, the flow is mixed with sand and natural gas, which colors it brown. Offshore, it doesn’t look so dark, bathed in the soft south light of Santa Barbara. Every few hours the slick grows, flowing north, then west, in a longish hook-shaped streak stretching from Carpinteria to Goleta and forty miles out to sea.

Five-and-a-half miles offshore, Union Oil Company’s Platform A is hemorrhaging oil, more than a thousand gallons of crude an hour. Mixed with natural gas, it boils out of the platform like a cauldron, green and brown and bubbly.

But it’s black as tar when it hits Carpinteria State Beach, Summerland Beach, Biltmore Beach, and Miramar Beach. And it’s thick as tar when it hits East Beach, West Beach, Hendry’s Beach, and Goleta Beach.

I walk these beaches during the Time of the Black Tide, extricating grebes from the goo and wondering what it all means. All my life—well, my childhood that I had spent near the shores of the sundown sea—I had taken for granted the roar of the breakers, the soft whoosh of the water covering the beach, the invigo- rating tang of the salt-seasoned breeze. People, older people, people I always figured were lost in the past, say you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. And now the breakers and the beach and the breeze are gone, at least how I remembered them, along with the cry of the gull, the mad burrowing of the sand crabs, the tidepools, and all the creatures that lived at land’s end. Gone are the seabirds that skimmed the tops of the waves, gone are the shorebirds that advanced and retreated with the waves.

Hardly a cormorant, a pelican, or a loon alive, nothing but oil, oil, oil at the whim of the wind and the tides.

I wander the shore, pulling birds, most dead, some alive, out of the muck. The oil covers my hands, sticks to my sneakers, spatters on my shirt and pants. But it isn’t so much the feel of the oil as the sight and smell of it. Especially the smell, the smell of hell, fumes that catch in my throat, that make me cough and choke and heave, dry heave because I’ve eaten nothing, can’t eat anything, not with birds dying screaming in my arms, not with the black tide bringing ever more corpses to a shore that is itself dying.

I gasp for air, every now and then walking away from the shore to catch my breath, then returning to the bedarkened beach and the tormented birds, feeling the pain of a world gone black, the agony of creatures screaming intheir death throes. This is the look of hell before the Devil lit a match.

The 2015 Refugio Oil Spill near Santa Barbara brought back nightmares of the Great Spill of 1969