Coast Guard cleans La Jolla beach after reports of tarballs linked to O.C. oil spill

A Coast Guard crew member searches for tarballs at Windansea Beach in La Jolla on Oct. 18.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Seventeen crew members from the Coast Guard were seen cleaning Windansea Beach on Oct. 18, soon after reports and photos of tarballs on La Jolla beaches began surfacing more than two weeks after a broken pipeline spilled at least 25,000 gallons of crude oil off the Orange County coast.

“We are continuing our efforts to make sure everything is cleaned up,” Coast Guard spokesman Adam Stanton said. “More and more tarballs can come onto the beach, so we are going to try and get it entirely cleaned up.”

La Jolla resident Abraham Palmer says he collected these tarballs Oct. 17 at Windansea Beach.
(Courtesy of Abraham Palmer)

Stanton said the tarballs were linked to the oil spill. There was no estimated timeline for when the beach would be considered cleaned.

Local beaches remain open and public health is not considered to be at risk.

However, experts advise people who encounter tarballs on local beaches not to handle them or any oil but rather email for cleanup teams at

In the days since the spill was first reported Oct. 2 off the coast of Huntington Beach, tarballs had been spotted as far south as Del Mar. But as of last week, UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla said it had found no evidence of oil in the waters off La Jolla through daily drone surveys and water samples.

Scripps Oceanography spokeswoman Lauren Fimbres Wood said Oct. 18 that UCSD’s environmental health and safety team again reported no observable oil floating on the ocean.

Measures at La Jolla’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium aim to protect marine life while oceanographers assist in wind and currents forecasts.

Dr. Jyoti Mayadev, a professor at UCSD and a researcher at the university’s Moores Cancer Center, told the La Jolla Light in an email the night of Oct. 17 that she had found “numerous” tarballs along the beach at La Jolla Shores that evening.

“They were everywhere,” said Mayadev, a La Jolla resident.

A photo of what appears to be tarballs amid the rocks and seaweed north of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla.
Dr. Jyoti Mayadev took this photo Oct. 18 of what appears to be tarballs amid the rocks and seaweed north of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Dr. Jyoti Mayadev)

Resident Abraham Palmer wrote on social media the same day that “tarballs are all over Windansea Beach. Everywhere. Without even trying, I found 50 pieces. Some were as small as a penny, others 5 inches in diameter. Mostly mixed into the seaweed. All were pretty flat and super sticky.”

Marvin Liu, a resident of La Jolla’s Barber Tract neighborhood, posted that he saw a tarball Oct. 17 at Marine Street Beach.

Tarballs from an oil spill form when heavier components of the slick remain in the water and winds and waves tear the slick into patches. Winds and currents can push them onto beaches.

Tarballs also can be produced from natural seeps, or places where oil slowly leaks out of the ground above petroleum reservoirs.

“If you step on them, they will stick to your skin,” Palmer wrote. “You’ll need to remove the tar at home; even then it’s very hard.”

Marvin Liu, a resident of La Jolla's Barber Tract neighborhood, says he saw this tarball Oct. 17 at Marine Street Beach.
(Courtesy of Marvin Liu)

According to Southern California Spill Response, this type of oil contains hazardous chemicals, and “if skin contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water or baby oil. Avoid using solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel or similar products on the skin. These products, when applied to skin, present a greater health hazard than the tarball itself.”

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokeswoman Monica Munoz said city lifeguards have been given instructions on how to proceed if beach-goers contact them about tar found on the beach. The lifeguards will notify appropriate county officials to collect the tar, she said.

Scripps chemical oceanographer Lihini Aluwihare says tarballs generally are tested to confirm if they are from an oil spill or are naturally occurring.

“Southern California oil is well-studied by federal, state and academic institutions, and there is a large database from previous analyses up and down the coast. As such, experts are well-positioned to connect any oil found on San Diego beaches to the spill,” Aluwihare said. “The area is a very active natural petroleum seep area, but if the oil washing up on beaches is connected to the recent spill, then it will ... look more ‘newborn’ in that the chemical signatures that are associated with aging ... will be absent if connected to the spill.” ◆