SeaVenture Blog

Pismo, Pismu … Tar?

Remains of Oil Seepage on Rocks

Remains of Oil Seepage on Rocks

We don’t see it much anymore, but the whole area around Pismo Beach, including out to sea, has pools of oil below the surface. In fact, the name ‘Pismo’ comes from the Chumash word ‘pismu’, which means ‘tar’. Every now and then you’ll see remnants of an old oil seepage on the rocks near the ocean, a very natural event.

The Chumash collected  tar from a location in Price Canyon not far from the current location of Pismo Beach, and used it to caulk their sea canoes. Just guessing here, but this may have been the very first use of a petroleum product in California, and a valuable tool it was!

There are still a few working wells inland in San Luis Obispo County, and now and then companies investigate whether to explore that area for more deposits. There are also proposals to look for oil offshore here, but so far citizens have opposed this idea because of the danger of spills.

The threat of spills is not an idle one.

Oil Production Platform

Oil Production Platform

If you have ever driven along Highway 101 through Santa Barbara County, you’ve seen the platforms in the channel that are still very active in pumping oil from beneath the seafloor. A big spill from one of these platforms in 1969 pretty much terminated further exploration in the area, and a more recent pipeline break in 2015 reminded people why they didn’t want drilling in the channel.

You can wander around on the beach outside our door pretty much with your eyes closed, and never step on anything except clean white sand or an occasional sunbather. Yet every once in a while, someone comes upon a struggling seabird covered in gooey oil.

The fact is that there is so much oil just beneath the seabed that it sometimes just oozes out. Oil floats, so you get little naturally occurring oil spills. If a bird happens to land in one of those puddles, it is instantly covered in oil that it cannot remove by itself. Most of these unlucky birds die.

Rescuing an Oily Bird

Rescuing an Oily Bird

If you do happen across an oily bird on the beach in San Luis Obispo County, it may have a chance. Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay is a non-profit outfit that takes in injured birds, land mammals, and sometimes even reptiles. PWC has a veterinarian on staff, and a bunch of dedicated workers who nurse lots of these animals to health, and then release them back where they were found.

So, if you think your oily bird could survive, call PWC at 805-543-9453 and get instructions on how to care for the bird until it can be transported to the Center.


Lauren is a lover of events, the great outdoors, wine, food, friends, and family. With 12 years of wedding experience, she offers helpful insights and pointers for weddings and special events. As a San Luis Obispo local, her tips come from first-hand experience of the beautiful Central Coast.

Meeting Reinvented

Get the RSS Feed