Muddy Waters Blues

 I grew up surfing in Santa Barbara at places like the river mouth at Rincon, Hammonds Reef, Miramar, Fernald’s Point, and Santa Clara River mouth. What did these spots have in common? During winter, the waters would turn a chocolate-brown color with all the runoff from the rain-filled creeks. My buddies and I would get sore throats and earaches, but we never thought about the reasons why.
In 1969, a Union Oil offshore drilling platform had a pipe rupture and millions of gallons of stinking crude oil covered beaches from Santa Barbara to Ventura. Sometimes we would come out of the good surf -- being young and dumb, we couldn’t resist going out -- literally looking like tar babies. Our washed in boards would be stuck to the gooey brown sand. The whole coastline stunk like a refinery. It was a major environmental nightmare for months, yet Fred Hartley, President of Union Oil Company, now Unocal, said, “I don’t like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.” In retrospect, I have to say, what a clueless idiot he was.
During the early 70s I frequented surf spots like Little Sewers in Shell Beach and Sewer Peak in Santa Cruz. Yeah, the water was a murky, greenish-brown and smelled a little odd, but, hey, you just shrugged and ignored it. There wasn’t anything we could do about it in those days, except try not to get the water in our mouths.
The first time I traveled to surf the south of France was in 1972. I remember being surprised at the large amount of plastic bottles that would accumulate along the rocky shoreline around breaks like Benches and Lafitennia. I was kind of dismayed that the French could be so disconcerned about this much discarded trash, but back then, plastic wasn’t much of a recyclable commodity. I didn’t like it, but I was a visitor, just passing through. There was nothing I could do about it, but I didn’t forget it. It bothered me.
During the mid-80s I was working in Los Angeles and would surf certain spots along the Palos Verdes area. I noticed a lot of Styrofoam debris, plastic flotsam and jetsam, cigarette butts, and much more urban refuse washed up along the beaches with periodic putrid-smelling, sudsy, yellowish foam. After doing a bit of research on what kind of effluents, pesticides and other nasty chemicals got washed down city storm drains straight into the sea, I was horrified. Plus, my girlfriend told me about an oceanography field trip her class took on a boat off of San Pedro. They caught a couple fish that she said had, “gross-looking bulbous ulcers growing on them.” I ended up writing a short article for Surfing Magazine in 1988 about a new study by Los Angeles County that finally acknowledged that swimming or surfing after a rainstorm could be hazardous to your health. With toxic metals like lead and cadmium, plus oil and grease, along with contamination from yard and animal waste and illegal sewage connections spewing directly into our offshore playground, it was mind-blowing that it had taken this long for the local government to go public with this news.
In the 40 years that I have surfed, I, like many, have gone from naïve to concerned to downright scared about the future of our world’s oceans. What will it be like in the next 40 years? Is the general public at all concerned about this looming nightmare? I think not.
This July I took my family to Coronado Beach to hook up with visiting relatives and catch a few waves. The amount of plastic rubbish, torn bags, shredded balloons and snack food containers I saw on the beach disgusted me. I spent about an hour picking up every bit of trash I could find along shore. A small effort, and I noticed people observing me quizzically, as if they were wondering why I was picking it up. I remember one time I saw this moron toss his fast food trash in the sand and walk away from it. I told him he should dispose of it and he said, “Hey, I’m giving somebody a job.” So often nowadays, that seems to be the bottom line. It’s someone else’s problem. Out of sight, out of mind, especially if you don’t live along the coast. Humans seem to let things go unchanged and unchecked until disaster hits. God help our children’s children if the ocean they inherit is plagued by greed, ignorance, and negligence that we’ve left unchecked.
The Los Angeles Times recently did an outstanding five-part series called “Altered Oceans” on the changing state of our seas and is available for viewing at,0,7842752.special. I urge all readers to spend the worthwhile time to check out this excellent multi-media presentation. Prepare to be shocked at what you see. Change is hard, but we can’t afford to be naïve any longer.
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