GOLETA, Calif. — Beachgoers were warned to avoid tar balls on Thursday along the Santa Barbara shoreline as the Coast Guard sought the source of a mysterious miles-long oil slick that floated up 1,000 yards from the sand.
Authorities said the three-mile sheen was harmless to people and beaches remained open — in contrast to the mass closure that occurred in May when a broken pipeline spilled 100,000 gallons of crude oil, fouling sands, seabirds and fishing areas in the same general area.
The beaches were expected to be packed as a heat wave grips Southern and Central California. Health officials warned them to expect some goop and to avoid contact with the oil, which was expected to gradually disperse.
The slick was discovered Wednesday when firefighters went to the Goleta pier to check on reports of a smell of gas.
They found two kayakers who had just come ashore with their legs and boats covered in oil. One of them, Bob Seiler, told KABC-TV he and a friend were fishing when they suddenly found themselves enveloped by the oil.
"We were heading to the end of the kelp bed that's out there and the further we got out there the thicker this film was," he said.
The slick didn't reach shore and its cause wasn't immediately determined, although the Coast Guard planned to keep investigating.
"I'm not sure when we'll find out," said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sondra-Kay Kneen.
The oil-rich Santa Barbara Channel, where it materialized, is the site of frequent natural seepage that results in tar balls washing ashore and slicks floating through the water. Rarely are the latter this big, however.
Although it was large it wasn't thick and gooey enough to be scooped up, said Kneen. It should simply dissipate on its own in the days ahead, she said.
As the Coast Guard sought to find the source, beaches in picturesque Santa Barbara and Goleta remained open and were expected to be packed as a heat wave grips Southern California.
The Santa Barbara County Department of Public Health said the slick provided no threat to public health and safety, although officials advised people to avoid contact with the oil.
The oil was floating not far from the Santa Barbara Channel's Platform Holly oil facility, but officials with Venoco Inc., which operates the platform, said it could not have come from there.
The platform is currently shut down and there is no oil in its pipeline, said Zach Shulman, the company's director for corporate finance and investor relations.
"Absent another source, the sheen is most likely due to natural seepage, which can vary from day-to-day," Shulman said in an email.
The sheen was located about 12 miles away from the site where an onshore pipeline operated by Texas-based Plains All American ruptured at Refugio State Beach in May. The break flooded the area with 100,000 gallons of crude, of which 21,000 gallons ended up in the ocean.
Popular campgrounds were closed, nearby commercial fishing was prohibited and nearly 300 marine mammals and birds were killed.
Earlier this month cleanup costs were pegged at $92 million.
Refugio, the hardest hit of the beaches, only reopened to the public two weeks ago.