I often mention Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach in the same sentence, even in the same breath. That’s because a trail connects them and I’ve long been fond of walking from one beach to another and encouraging others to do likewise.

Then came the recent oil spill, more than one hundred thousand gallons of crude gushing out of a ruptured pipe and part of that oil pouring down a culvert into the sea at Refugio State Beach. Now Refugio State Beach and its sister shore, El Capitan State Beach, are linked by tragedy as well as trail.

A black tide rolled in on Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches.
A black tide rolled in on Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches.

In the very earliest reporting of the spill, caused by a buried Plains All American Pipeline that ruptured just up-coast from Refugio State Beach, it was labeled the “Gaviota Oil Spill” and the “Santa Barbara Oil Spill” (even the “Second Santa Barbara Oil Spill”). Most media, however, soon settled on “Refugio Oil Spill” with the occasional regional reporter branding it the “Refugio Beach Oil Spill.”

What’s in a name?

A lot, really, if like me, you are strong supporter of our California State Parks.

After the spill, authorities sealed off the shoulders of Highway 101 for miles above and below Refugio State Beach, making it all but impossible for the public to stop and view the damage.
After the spill, authorities sealed off the shoulders of Highway 101 for miles above and below Refugio State Beach, making it all but impossible for the public to stop and view the damage.
For we state park advocates, the disaster might be better termed the “Refugio State Beach Oil Spill.” The spill greatly affected this state beach as well as more shore under the stewardship of California State Parks—seven miles of coastline extending from El Capitan State Beach on the east to Arroyo Hondo Creek to the west.

Intent on scouting the spill, I first headed for El Capitan State Beach. It was closed, but I was fortunate that my reputation as a state park champion had preceded me, and the young man at the entry kiosk recognized my name and let me in to take a look.

In terms of oil impacts, there was not much to see. Yet. The shoreline was deserted, cleared of all visitors.

Sean Anderson, CSU Channel Islands professor was out monitoring effects of the oil spill on El Capitan State Beach.
Sean Anderson, CSU Channel Islands professor was out monitoring effects of the oil spill on El Capitan State Beach.

But I did meet one scientist at work: California State University Channel Islands Professor Sean Anderson and a handful of his students were “monitoring sandy beach sites before they get oiled by the spill.” His team was collecting hermit crabs with the intention of doing before and after comparisons of the effects of the spill on marine life.

CSU Channel Islands students collect hermit crabs at El Capitan State Beach as part of a study to measure oil spill effects.
CSU Channel Islands students collect hermit crabs at El Capitan State Beach as part of a study to measure oil spill effects.

As it turns out, Dr. Anderson is an expert on sandy beaches and their considerable environmental—and economic—value to the state of California. I hope, post-spill that we hear—and better understand—the professor’s message.

Not surprisingly, I was turned away at Refugio State Beach. I found a place to park less than two miles away, put on a pair of old sneakers and started walking. Refugio State Beach, a combo of sand and rocky shore with tide pools, was covered in goo. Particularly heartbreaking was the heart of the park: there is, or was, a tropical isle feel of the sleepy lagoon at the mouth of Refugio Creek and the picnic ground under the palms.

Paradise no more, to say the least. The shore and the sea beyond seemed more like a living hell for the creatures that died here and others that passed by here. I wanted to shout a warning to the whales migrating by: “Don’t swim so close to shore! Watch out for the oil slick!”

And then there were the pelicans. I spotted one bird, all but immobilized by a covering of oil, and flocks of them flying back and forth overhead, as if in a panic about where, or if, to land.

Pelicans are particularly affected by the oil spill on Refugio State Beach.
Pelicans are particularly affected by the oil spill on Refugio State Beach.

Later in the afternoon I was pleased to observe that perhaps as many as a hundred pelicans had found temporary refuge on the Gaviota Pier in Gaviota State Park, located a short drive up-coast from Refugio State Beach. Gaviota Pier was closed last year due to storm damage, so the pelicans, and scores of seagulls had sole use of the pier and I was glad that they had found a temporary wildlife sanctuary.

Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach will need a large amount of cleaning-up and major environmental restoration. The Refugio State Beach Oil Spill will affect these shores for many years to come. While much smaller than the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, it may prove to have more severe consequences for a coast known for its beauties and biological diversity.