Mucked Up

A black summer for beach lovers stirs memories of a sickened—and still ailing—bay

Illustration by Gracia Lam

I have—somewhat unexpectedly—found myself back at the beach this summer. I grew up on it, learned to swim there and to flirt with boys, though in later years I drifted away. Part of that was age. Part of it the press of work—too little time in a given day to go on an outing. We also had put in our own little pool, so I had a private place to take refuge from the heat. Not that there wasn’t a pull toward the Pacific. I have always been cognizant of it, always felt the sea breath wafting inward, cooling my sometimes sweltering, noisy city. But of late I have mostly admired it from a distance, either through the window of a car as I drove on the coast highway or through sunglasses as I walked along the bluffs in Santa Monica, getting a quick spiritual hit from watching the waves do their timeless thing.

This summer two of my (step) grandchildren visited for a few days. Sacramento boys, 8 and 12, they came with their father, my youngest stepson. Like me, he had grown up here and spent hot-weather vacation days bodysurfing, his torso and limbs turning deep brown, his hair turning white blond. Later, when I married his dad, he and his three brothers would spend the weekend at our little rental shack hanging over the water in Malibu. We had kayaks and surfboards and fins, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that on that beach and in that ocean we took our first steps to becoming a family. At night on the balcony, staring out at the sunset as we grilled big, thick hamburgers, our bodies still crusted with salt, there was a sense of shared joy. We’d be OK together, this very young stepmother and her new quartet—quintet, if you count my spouse—of exuberant males. Now it was time for the grandkids to have a taste of what we had experienced.

Oh my, what one forgets: the feeling of freedom and space that you can’t get anywhere else in Los Angeles, the inevitable breeze and the grit of warm sand between your toes. Then the plunge into the ocean, the exhilaration of being knocked around by a primal force, of hurling one’s body under the next wave and the next, coming up spitting and laughing. I was stunned by the sensory pleasures. Looking around at the blue water and the wide, largely unsullied beach—yes, there were some plastic water bottles and empty Doritos bags, but generally it was pretty clean—I sent up a prayer of gratitude knowing that a couple thousand miles away an oil gusher had devastated someone else’s coastal paradise. Sitting here, it was impossible not to feel stricken for that piece of the country, impossible not to imagine that nasty goo being here and how nauseated one would feel, how violated. This, no matter where you live, has been the summer of the spill. 

We have all been tethered to it, from the first news blast to the most recent. The images have been haunting: the dark, gloppy sheen on the ocean, the birds with their coated beaks and wings, the marsh grasses dense with a reddish-brown paste. Haunting, too, have been the stories of the Gulf fishermen and the resort keepers whose lives have been upended, the vanishing-paycheck folks (a poignant counterpoint to the Wall Street gang, many of whom seemed to be getting back on their well-paid feet).


We in Southern California had our moment of reckoning in 1969. On January 28, to be exact, there was a massive blowout on Union Oil’s Platform A, six miles offshore from Santa Barbara, unforgettable to those of us here. I remember the rigs going up the previous year, the shock of seeing them for the first time, looking intrusive and industrial, each like a giant Erector set. It had never occurred to me that someone could do that, plunk such an eyesore in the water, in the view, in the postcard of my childhood. From one month to the next, there they were. We squawked about the ugliness of them, and then came the disaster, which certainly trumped any aesthetic qualms. We saw just what an oil spill looked like, and it was spooky, almost otherworldly. The slick coated 35 miles of coastline in a gelatinous muck. Dead seals and dolphins washed onto the beach, and birds died by the thousands, their wings caked with tar. Hundreds of locals helped in the cleanup, piling straw on the sand to soak up the oil that had fouled the shore. There was sorrow and outrage—the idea that we had been betrayed by Big Industry (this was the Vietnam era, which first gave voice to opposition to the military-industrial complex, as it was called). But mixed in was the beginning of real environmental activism. I suppose you might say we were perversely lucky. Our spill came early and was, compared to the Gulf’s, small. But it lit a fire in the minds of many.

That year a group called GOO! (Get Oil Out!) collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to ban offshore drilling. The State Lands Commission took up the challenge and declared a moratorium. The California Coastal Commission—with far-reaching power over any activity that might affect the coast—was created. There was a hum of eco-energy, the first surge, strong enough that in 1981 Congress stopped any new offshore oil leasing, with the exception of Alaska (hello, Exxon Valdez) and the Gulf of Mexico (hello, current mess). The blowout became the cautionary tale for this coastline, this state, leaving many of us with a sense of urgency, even optimism. This didn’t need to happen twice. It should not. It must not. We didn’t want to see those images ever again.

But there were threats other than oil spills, right on my own swimming turf. It was reported in 1985 that barely treated sewage was being dumped into Santa Monica Bay. What I—and my stepsons, along with millions of others—had cheerfully dunked in was rife with pollution and the highest levels of contamination found anywhere along the country’s coasts. As it turned out, this enchanted place was anything but—it was downright filthy. Swimmers were sickened; fish were poisoned. An impassioned woman named Dorothy Green helped found the group Heal the Bay to undo the damage. Through lawsuits and fund-raisers and consciousness-raising press conferences, they were able to do just that—get the offenders to clean up their act and stop putting toxins into the sea. Heal the Bay is still on the case, issuing an annual report card on the state of our beaches. Before taking my grandkids this summer, I logged on to its Web site and found that the particular beach we had played on, my stepson and I, now bore an A rating. 

That’s what I thought about, shivering on my towel after my rebaptismal plunge and watching my grandsons leap and shriek in the waves. How lucky I was to be in a small, blessed spot because someone was on guard, watching out for the bay I loved and thus for those I loved. But vigilance is constantly required. The irony is that two years ago, after decades of being opposed to offshore drilling, Californians were softening, thinking that, hey, maybe with gas at $4 a gallon, we’d better turn the oil guys loose again. That attitude is changing as people grow disgusted by media reports of BP bypassing safety procedures. Recent polls show that 41 percent of registered voters in the state oppose new offshore drilling while 46 percent favor it, a significant reversal from 2009. The two contenders for governor, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, are united at least in their opposition to a resumption in drilling. It seems that we are back in moratorium mode for the moment—and one can be pleased by that fact if not also saddened that it comes as a result of someone else’s tragedy.