Oil Spill on the Santa Barbara Coast

A ruptured pipeline spills oil along Santa Barbara coast harming birds and other wildlife

California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County after a ruptured pipeline spilled tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean near Refugio State Beach.

There’s nothing to drive home how devastating an oil spill is than seeing its effect on wildlife — in this case a brown pelican covered in oil and struggling for its life. It’s one of the more harrowing things I’ve seen.

Fortunately, I came across very few oiled animals out there at the spill. And it was comforting to have people from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the scene to help with the rescue effort.

But I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these images in coming days and weeks, as the Gaviota coast is home to a rich diversity of wildlife and the spill is already affecting a swath about 10 miles wide.

I took quite a few photos out there at the spill, but this one seems to have struck a nerve, already popping up on dozens of news sites. I’ll have more images to share soon.


I went up with my pilot friend John this evening for an aerial view of the oil spill. It was hazy and the visibility wasn’t great, but you could clearly see the oil slick covering the area from Refugio State Beach toward El Capitan State Beach.

An aerial view of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara. (Photo by Scott London)
An aerial view of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara. (Photo by Scott London)

Breaking Into Print

When you shoot for stock agencies, you never know where your images are going to turn up. A friend of mine contacted me a few days ago, saying that one of my photos just appeared in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper. It was a rather unremarkable red carpet photo of actress Jennifer Lawrence that I had taken some months ago.

What was poignant about this particular photo credit was that Dagens Nyheter was where I first broke into print. I was a teenager living in Stockholm in the early 1980s. The newspaper ran a short commentary of mine about a city landmark—Kulturhuset—that I happened to love. To say that I was happy to see my name in print would be an understatement. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life!

Some years prior to that, one of my mother’s friends, a reporter at Dagens Nyheter, had given me a personal tour of the newsroom. The experience set its mark on my young and impressionable psyche and nurtured my passion to become a journalist.

That was more than thirty years ago. I don’t feel that same rush of excitement when I see my name in print anymore. But for whatever reason, getting published in Dagens Nyheter still feels a little bit special. Like returning to an alma mater or revisiting a childhood home.

It helps me remember where I first set out on this long and strange professional journey and, more importantly, take stock of the many places I still want to go.

Nobel Peace Prize for 2013

The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.

This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.

The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.

It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.

But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.

I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.

It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.

In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.

This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?

Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.

As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.

There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.

Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.

As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.

Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo

Vanishing Oasis

I was back at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago and was stunned to see how quickly it’s drying up. Experts say the water level is currently dropping about seven inches per year. It may not seem like much, but it means the shoreline is receding fast, especially along the north and south shores.

The photos above were taken five years apart, almost to the day. As you can see in the bottom image, the water line has moved quite a distance in that short period of time. Elsewhere along the shore, homes that used to be on the lakefront are now hundreds of feet away from the water.

To say that the Salton Sea is an ecological problem would be an understatement. It’s more like a catastrophe. Dwindling inflows and rising salinity represent a very serious public health problem facing southern California. We’re also looking at the loss of one of North America’s most important migratory bird refuges.

The Salton Sea has been neglected for years, but the Obama administration recently earmarked $200,000 to study the situation and come up with a series of restoration proposals. It’s not much, but it’s a start. It means that perhaps there is enough political will to halt, if not exactly reverse, the process of environmental devastation.

I’ve been documenting the decline of the Salton Sea for several years now. I’ve gathered a collection of thirty photographs in a series titled “Vanishing Oasis.” You can view the images here.

On the Oscar Trail

It’s not Cannes or Sundance, but over the last three decades the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has established itself as one of America’s leading movie fests. The event typically draws about 70,000 people and features some 200 screenings, along with an impressive line-up of tributes, award shows, and panels with industry insiders.

But the big story each year revolves around the celebrities—the beautiful people who come to town and, for a few days, transform the place into the epicenter of the entertainment world. Given Santa Barbara’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood, as well as the festival’s serendipitous timing—right in the middle of awards season—it’s no surprise the event has become a crucial stop on the Oscar trail.

The festival announces its line-up of awards and tributes in early January, before the annual Oscar nominations are revealed. The organizers have proven to be surprisingly prescient in recent years, often booking appearances with actors, directors and others in the industry who go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. In 2009, for example, the festival welcomed more than two dozen Oscar nominees.

But the festival’s knack for predicting winners can be attributed in no small part to the Hollywood publicity machine. Today celebrities and industry insiders routinely go on “Oscar tours” to generate buzz for their latest films, often backed by million-dollar advertising budgets. For Academy Award-contenders, an appearance in Santa Barbara can not only generate valuable publicity but improve the odds of a big win at the Oscars.

But it’s movie aficionados who are the big winners at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. For what could be better in the end than eleven full days of screenings, panels with prominent writers, producers, and directors, and tributes to the best and brightest in the business?

It was my fifth year covering the festival. I’ve posted a photoessay here.