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Ooey, gooey oil seeps on the seafloor

For kids: Off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., people aren't polluting the ocean with oil – nature is.

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But other animals fared better. Generations of fish, dolphins, and whales that live in the Santa Barbara Channel have slowly adapted to the oil. Even though oil is poisonous, they tolerate it because seep oil is released in small amounts over time. Seawater mixes with the oil, diluting it and making it less harmful.

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Seabirds living near the seeps have learned to swim or fly away from the slicks. That's good because birds and oil don't mix.

A bird's feathers insulate it against the cold, trapping its body heat and keeping it warm. Seabirds coated with oil try to clean their feathers by preening them with their bills. In doing so, they eat some of the oil, which is bad for them. But if they can't clean their feathers, the birds can't stay fluffy and warm in the cold water and could freeze.

Unfortunately, birds living in other parts of the channel don't seem to know about the dangers of the oil. When normal winds and currents change, the slicks spread elsewhere, and birds unfamiliar with oil get coated.

New discovery on the seafloor

Bottom-dwelling sea creatures have also adapted to the oil seeps. During a dive last year in a minisubmarine called Alvin, scientists saw a giant mound of tar near a seep. It was 262 feet across and 66 feet tall! It was overgrown with urchins and anemones and encircled by schools of fish.

Specialized bacteria that "eat" the oil lived nearby in slimy white mats. Clams, barnacles, and starfish that are specially adapted to survive near oil seeps thrived on the tar mountain. The scientists in Alvin had never seen anything like it. They said that the mound was a new kind of seafloor feature and that it probably started growing after an earthquake 23,000 years ago.

A word to the wise

Tar and oil seepage tends to increase in warm water. With global temperatures rising and the world's oceans warming, that means more tar balls on the beach. So if you and your family are planning to visit Santa Barbara, remember: Have fun on the beach, but watch where you step!

Some whale species may owe their survival more to a Polish pharmacist than to international agreements limiting commercial whaling.

In the early 1850s, Ignacy Lukasiewicz and another pharmacist, Jan Zeh, began experimenting with oil from natural seeps near Lviv, a city in modern-day Ukraine. They hoped to turn seep oil into an alternative to whale oil, which was expensive.

Whale oil was widely used as a fuel for lamps and a lubricant for machinery. The global whaling industry built hundreds of whaling boats, and many thousands of whales were slaughtered. It was very profitable.

Building on techniques perfected by Abraham Gesner in Canada, Lukasiewicz developed a method of turning gooey seep oil into clear kerosene fuel. Lukasiewicz's kerosene was easy to produce and it was cheaper than whale oil.

Interest in kerosene lamps grew when, on July 31, 1853, Lukasiewicz was asked to bring a lamp to the hospital so doctors could perform surgery after dark. The hospital staff were so impressed that they ordered some of his lamps.

Word spread, and soon much of Europe wanted kerosene lamps, too. People no longer wanted so much whale oil. It smelled bad and spoiled over time. Demand fell, and many factories that made whale oil closed.

By the late 1800s, commercial whaling had declined substantially, allowing some whale populations slowly to replenish.

• A guide to California's oil seeps is available from the United States Geological Service at http://seeps.wr.usgs.gov.

• To learn about oil's role in prehistoric California, visit the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits: www.tarpits.org.

• Visit the kids' page on oil in the sea at the Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway: http://oils.gpa.unep.org/kids/kids.htm.

• For science activities and puzzles about oil and the environment, see the Kids Playground page at www.mms.gov/omm/pacific/kids/kids.htm.

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