A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Harbor

Sylvia Cifuentes, Sarah Lerner, Mario Tumen

Wednesday, 2pm: We sit outside on the sunny terrace of the restaurant above the Maritime Museum to enjoy lunch. We watch as a smattering of tourists and locals roam the docks below.  Our plates are attacked by a hungry bird as we are still eating. It is time to move downstairs. Unbeknownst to us, the Museum is closed. We meander off to the gift shop to see if they sell anything related to the oil spill and emerge empty-handed.

According to Visit Santa Barbara, a non-profit organization “committed to providing visitors and travel professionals with the best possible service and information,” Santa Barbara received over 7 million visitors last year. The Santa Barbara Harbor is a popular destination for many of these visitors. Upon arriving at this location on a Saturday morning, visitors will find a busy area with a lively fish market, and numerous boats docked at the marina. They may or may not know that January 28, 1969, one of the largest oil spills in the history of United States put the region and its human and more-than-human ecosystems at risk.

Given the initial lackluster response from state and federal authorities, a number of local fishermen led the earliest clean-up efforts (Wheeling and Ufberg 2018). They helped spread straw to soak up oil from the shore and set up booms around the harbor. Over the next few weeks, several scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and environmental activists campaigned to end oil extraction in the city’s waters. A number of contemporary scholars have argued that grassroots mobilizations in Santa Barbara prompted environmental reform at a federal level, but with the exception of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, visitors will find little evidence of this event in the downtown area (Spezio 2018). In other words, given the invisibility of the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Harbor, it seems that this environmental disaster has paradoxically become a “non-event” in the city.

Saturday, 10am: We arrive at the docks, camera-ready for Fish Market day. We observe the three or four fish vendors, rather shocked that this is all there is. Quietly, we confer about which vendors we might approach with our questions. “Who is the oldest? They all look so young.” We approach an older fisherman who sells crab. The crabs squirm as he tells us that he was too young in 1969 to recall the events. He directs us back to the museum. But people who work there are retirees from outside California, and thus unfamiliar with the spill. Then, we approach the Yacht Club, ignoring the sign that reads, “members only”. At the reception desk, a young woman informs us that no one is available to talk with us. We go outside and look at birds bobbing up and down on the beach shores, thinking about how the spill must have affected them. We’ve now made a loop and no one we’ve spoken to has firsthand experience with the spill.

When we returned with the class in December of 2018, finally able to tour the museum as a group, we offered this audio guide to set the stage for what they would experience.

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