What it was like to surf on day of Orange County oil spill: Frantic dolphins, exhaust smell

Huntington Beach, CA - October 03: An oil slick lines the beach as a man walks, taking in the scene of a major oil spill washing ashore at Huntington State Beach in Huntington Beach Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Crews raced Sunday morning to contain the damage from a major oil spill off the Orange County coast that left crude spoiling beaches, killing fish and birds and threatening local wetlands. The oil slick is believed to have originated from a pipeline leak, pouring 126,000 gallons into the coastal waters and seeping into the Talbert Marsh as lifeguards deployed floating barriers known as booms to try to stop further incursion, said Jennifer Carey, Huntington Beach city spokesperson. At sunrise Sunday, oil was on the sand in some parts of Huntington Beach with slicks visible in the ocean as well. "We classify this as a major spill, and it is a high priority to us to mitigate any environmental concerns," Carey said. "It's all hands on deck." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
An oil slick lines the beach after a major oil spill washed ashore at Huntington State Beach on Sunday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When I heard about the Orange County oil spill Sunday morning, I immediately started wondering about the surreal day I had Saturday, surfing with my son, his friend and a pod of dolphins in Huntington Beach.

I had waited until midmorning for the tide to go down and the small waves to show a bit more strength. By 10:30 I had caught a few crumblers at the south end of Bolsa Chica State Beach and was paddling back out, when about 10 dolphins tore through the heavy crowd of surfers. One broke through the surface just a few feet ahead of me. “Whoa!” I said. They were racing north as fast as I’d ever seen.

Dolphins are a common sight in Huntington. But they usually saunter around, and swim fast only when they’re riding waves. When they do dart like that, it can be unnerving because they come alarmingly close, and at more than 300 pounds, they could cause a disastrous collision.

But I’ve never seen them make a mistake, so I just sat there and marveled for a minute. You could track them by watching the startled reaction of surfers as they moved up the coast.

“I’d never seen them do that,” I muttered to the surfer next to me, who looked gobsmacked.

Globules, foam and sheen from oil in the water
Oil that flowed in from high tide is held back by a sand berm and boom in a trapped pool on the border of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It seemed like they were fleeing something, and I figured it had to be the Pacific Airshow, just to the south. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were thundering overhead.

An Orange County fire boat was spraying torrents of water in the air. Hundreds of boats were gunning from nearby marinas to see the show. Their wake chewed up the surf, and I could smell the boat exhaust from miles away. Maybe the dolphins were trying to get away from the noise and chaos. But why with open water all around them, did they race right through the crowd, almost like they were trying to scare people?

When the boat wake had all but destroyed the surf, I went in. My son was already on the beach. “Dad, that dolphin almost killed you,” he said.

“Did you see that?” I asked, surprised he could see it from the beach. “That was insane.”

“It was like they were running from something,” he said.

We walked to the car and changed out of our wetsuits, watching the F-16s roar overhead. One of them flew so low you could see the vapor cone around it as it approached supersonic speeds. It all made for an eventful morning, but I chalked up the dolphin behavior as one of those weird things and moved on with my day.

I woke up Sunday to news of the oil spill. My first reaction was dread about how bad it might be. Then for a fleeting moment, I wondered: Did the dolphins know?

No way, I figured, the early reports sounded as though the oil spill happened in the afternoon.

As the morning wore on, I read more about the spill, about air show onlookers smelling oil during the day. Was that what I was smelling, not boat exhaust? Or had they just smelled the exhaust and pegged it to the spill?

By afternoon, officials were reporting the oil slick was discovered Saturday morning, leaking about 130,000 gallons of crude from a pipeline connected to the offshore oil platform Elly.

Two oil rigs in the ocean
Oil platforms Elly, left, and Ellen stand about nine miles offshore from Huntington Beach in this image taken Aug. 27, 2019. (Sean Greene / Los Angeles Times)

Now, it’s not exactly clear what time the oil started leaking. I still think the dolphins probably didn’t like all the noise or some other aspect of the air show, and just swam in the surf zone because that’s where they usually go. I'm skeptical of "Flipper"-like tales.

But if the leak turns out to have started around 9 or 10 a.m. Saturday, then I’m going to have to think, with a bit of awe: Maybe they were warning us.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.