1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill

January 28, 1969: The third largest oil spill in the country, the largest oil spill at the time, hit the Santa Barbara coast. According to the LA Times, over 3 million gallons of crude oil was released into the Pacific Ocean, spanning a range of thirty-five miles.  Areas of tar appeared as far west as the Channel Islands, mostly the Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands.

Biologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara studied the marine life that was effected by the spill and the numbers were outstanding: around 9,000 birds, 14 tons of surfgrass, 9 million barnacles, and an assortment of mussels, limpets, and periwinkles were found dead.

Along with environmental issues, the oil spill took a major toll on the economy of the coastal cities. According to Sarah Sikich, vice president of Heal the Bay, commercial fishing was suspended temporarily, tourism decreased, and properties along the coastlines suffered considerable damage.


Effects seen at the Santa Barbara Harbor one month after oil spill. February 1969.




Digital representation oil spill


Outraged Santa Barbara community members began protesting offshore drilling. The severity of this disaster, as well as the overwhelming media coverage began the fire of a growing environmental movement.After months of riots and debates, the government stepped up and took action.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson visited Santa Barbara and other cities in California. After seeing the devastations he read about the idea of ‘teach-ins’ to incorporate environmental studies into college campuses and communicate government concerns . He stated “If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda”. In April of 1970, our nation had the first Earth Day celebration. The Santa Barbara oil spill served as a the spark of environmental movements everywhere. Earth Day was created in remembrance of the this oil spill as well as other environmental disasters. The celebration of this day raised an extraordinary amount of environmental awareness leading to several other official government policies.

The lasting impression that the spill had led the president at the time, Richard Nixon, to sign the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, allowing for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In the following years, the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. These were written and signed in hopes of keeping our environment cleaner for the human, animal, and plant populations.

Since Earth Day and the acts that followed, a variety of smaller practices set into motion. To name a few, people began recycling, using more efficient forms of energy such as CFL and LED light bulbs, and the first electric cars were built.

The oil spill that occurred in Santa Barbara was a devastating event, but it led to something so great. The everlasting effects that the creation of Earth Day has had on our environment are necessary to keeping our earth clean and fresh.


After the tides receded from the shore lines, the oil-stained rocks displayed the amount of oil left along the beaches. Marvin Moore photograph.



Two oil-coated grebes showing the amount of oil that covered and harmed the animals. Photo taken by the Associated Press.



Santa Barbara community members standing together to protest offshore drilling. Bob Duncan photo.



Political cartoon expressing the effects the oil had on the attraction of Santa Barbara.



New York Times headliner of the first celebration of Earth Day on April 22, 1970