One of the first things we notice as California beachgoers is the tar on our feet – but how does that tar get from the seeps to our feet?

tar on both feet

Santa Barbara offshore natural oil seeps pollute beaches from Los Angeles to Monterey.  The natural oil and gas seeps beneath the Santa Barbara Channel cause oil to drift to the ocean’s surface, producing a persistent oil slick that’s usually carried north and west by ocean currents, generally coming ashore between Santa Barbara and Gaviota. As the oil rises to the surface and floats, it coagulates and biodegrades into tar. This is the same tar that is found on the beaches along the Santa Barbara coastline – and on your feet! As a result of weather and ocean conditions, the greatest amount of tar appears on Santa Barbara beaches during the summer months.

Tarseep on land

Here’s what it looks like when it first shows up on the beach.

These photos are from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Terrestrial tarseep

This is a very well-known phenomenon among the Santa Barbara locals. A surfer wrote a full article on beach tar for Edhat. Paul Costales shared the frustration of many when he stated that, “The tarriest beaches, not surprisingly, have some tarry names, Tar Pits and Coal Oil Point (Sands and Deveraux) being the most popular tar prone surf beaches in these parts… you can have a tar-free surf session in the water but still get a ton of tar on your feet from the walk down the beach to the break.

Tar spots on footHere’s his foot – look familiar?

It’s interesting to talk about our local fun. But did you know that tar on most California beaches can be traced back to the offshore seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel? The USGS investigated that too.

How Much Oil Seeps into the Santa Barbara Channel?

When tar balls appeared on California beaches south of San Francisco in late January 2008, beachgoers wondered whether the sticky black globs were residues of oil spilled nearly 3 months earlier by the container ship Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay. Geochemists from the USGS have been “fingerprinting” tars and oils from natural seeps, offshore oil and gas platforms, and California shorelines for more than 10 years. Their studies show that virtually all the tar balls that wash up on the California coast come from natural seeps of oil and tar. Most of the known sea-floor natural seeps are in the Santa Barbara Channel in Southern California, where tar balls (to the surprise of unsuspecting tourists) are common year-round on beaches nearest the seeps.

Researchers with Tar on Jalama Beach

These two researchers look as though they are about to jump rope! That tar whip was found on Jalama Beach.

SO if you find yourself frustrated by the tar on the beach, know that this is a natural phenomenon on the California coast – and that oil and gas exploration and production is making it better!  As reported in past blogs, Venoco’s production activities have reduced oil and gas seepage. Even locals know the difference. Patsy Dorsey, an ultra-marathoner who just turned 69, was born and raised in Santa Barbara. She has said, “You would not believe the amount of tar that was on the beaches when I was a kid. I am so thrilled that my hometown’s beaches are getting so much cleaner!”

The path of the oil from natural oil seeps

But we’re not pristine yet. So the next time you get tar on your feet, why not hum a little song.  Might I suggest local songwriter Jack Johnson’s Bubble Toes? He wrote it about his future wife, and the chorus goes something like this:

It’s as simple as something that nobody knows that
Her eyes are as big as her bubbly toes
On the feet of the queen of the hearts of the cards
And her feet are infested with tar balls

Here’s the link (I know you need it)…

Happy Summer!!!

– Alice Green

Submit a Comment