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Examining the Impacts of the Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach

May 29 2015

We're headed down to Santa Barbara to examine the effects of the oil spill on Refugio State Beach. We'll be using new tools to get different perspectives on the damage, as well as prototyping and documenting methods for citizen scientists to respond to environmental crisis in the future.

May 29 2015


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Mission Underway

On June 10th, we set out together with our partners at Santa Barbara Channel Keeper on their boat the R/V Channel Keeper. We headed to Naples Marine Protected Area (MPA), which is just a few miles down current from the Refugio Oil Spill Site. We had a few VIPs along with us, a reporter from Rolling Stone Magazine and an oil spill documentary producer. We launched our OpenROVs and inspected the ocean floor on the current facing side of the MPA. Luckily we can report that we did not see any oil on the benthos (sea floor), but many more surveys are necessary to have a complete grasp of any deposition.

I love the way you've done these videos. It's nice to see the surrounding area before you put your ROV in the water, and the text helps put everything in context. Thank you!

After pursuing the proper channels, we were not given permission to enter the oil spill site. Without a clear idea as to the condition of the ocean floor, we partnered with Santa Barbara Channel Keeper, and set out to examine the area that is just outside the closed areas.

We set out aboard the R/V Channel Keeper with their program director Ben.

After some precipitation from the previous night, and from a plankton bloom, visibility was poor. We were unable able to survey all of our intended sites, but we were able to get the area directly off shore from the spill site.

We did not see any evidence of oil visually. We plan on heading out again next week to further investigate the ocean floor proximal to the beach closures.

Sorry about the permits. What an amazing idea in the first place though. Unfortunately the evidence of the spill will end up outside of permitted areas soon enough.

Site of Dive 1


Did you end up mounting the O2 probe? If not, how will you know if there are oil effects in the water?

Since this was a terrestrial oil spill, there were a lot of tarballs formed. We were looking visually at the sea floor for evidence of tar balls, oiled vegetation, and/or large amounts of dead organisms.

Preparation Stage

Getting ready to head out on the water. Planning to explore the MPA outside the spill area. Photo of the Pirate Lab


We are preparing to deploy our ROVs and sensors into the oil spill site, and to examine the sea floor for any deposited oil, or affected sea life. We are awaiting approval from the Unified Command. Whenever there is a large scale disaster, whether it is a large fire, earthquake, oil spill or something else, there is a system in place to manage it. It was designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is called the Incident Command System. (ICS) The ICS essentially establishes a chain of command in regard to an incident, and there are delegated positions within an incident, and it is often not limited to only one agency, those who arrive first assume command, then pass it off and necessary. In the case of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, the Unified Command is comprised of the: Coast Guard, National Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Transportation and local government. (

Being that this event is both a physical, and a health hazard, there are many factors that go into managing an incident like this. The area is completely closed off, and authorization for any activity within the site requires express written permission and proper training.
I spent many years as a Paramedic and I am used to operating in situations like this, but not all have, so I'd like to talk a little about an effort to help in a situation like this entails, so others in the future can know the risks and understand the steps that are involved. This will be a bit lengthy, for the internet world, the TL;DR is: Be safe, educate yourself, and realize that though the red tape can be exhausting, it is there to reduce the likelihood of injury.


Keep us posted and keep up the good work! You're interview with David was amazing, Thanks for sharing this with us Paul!

Absolutely, I know lots of people want to help, but don't know how to get started. Hopefully we'll have lots more to share soon!

Needed: Atlas Scientific Dissolved Oxygen Probe

Paul indicated the crew needs an DO Probe. If you have one we can use and you're in the Southern California area, please let us know. Or, if you're interested in donating one (or the $$ to buy one) that'd be great, too!


Expedition Background

We're headed down to Santa Barbara to examine the effects of the oil spill on Refugio State Beach. We'll be using new tools to get different perspectives on the damage, as well as prototyping and documenting methods for citizen scientists to respond to environmental crisis in the future.

We'll be working with Paul Spaur, who runs the AARR-Pirate Lab at CSU Channel Islands. Paul and his students have extensive experience with the area as well as with the technology. Our goal is to live stream footage from beneath the surface to get a sense for how the oil spill is affecting the intertidal areas.


Good luck with the trip, I'm interested to see your results because nobody else seems to be writing up impact statements.