Sticky situation? Tarball at La Jolla beach ‘not a concern’

After a local resident found her foot covered in tar on a visit to La Jolla Shores, those in the know say there’s no cause for worry.

Crown Point resident Trisha Goolsby was on the sand March 29 when she noticed her foot covered in a sticky substance that wouldn’t come off. 

She realized it was tar after noticing its strong odor and asked the lifeguards on duty for help. 

The lifeguards handed her the degreaser WD-40 and alcohol wipes, which Goolsby said removed the tar after a bit of effort, though the tar’s smell lingered for several hours. 

“I’m surprised no one else stepped in it,” Goolsby said.

Wondering if this was a widespread issue, lajolla.ca reached out to experts.

“We have no issues with tar at our beaches presently,” said Monica Muñoz, spokesperson for the city of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department.

three chunks of black tar washed up on La Jolla shores beach, tide is low.

“Natural sources of tar from the ocean floor can be washed to shore following a storm … in very small amounts,” she said. “But with all the foot traffic on our beaches, it ends up on the bottom of someone’s foot.”

Dick Norris, professor at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, concurred: “The large majority of the tar is from natural seeps offshore,” he said, and not ship pollution. 

Though most of the offshore seeps in California are concentrated off Santa Barbara, there are a few up and down the coast, so it’s “logical that there might be some generation of natural tar from seeps in our area as well.”

If there were a larger marine pollution disaster, like an oil spill or from another human source, California officials would be quick to take “some kind of corrective action,” Norris said.

Tar itself began as oil that has degassed; as the trapped gases are lost, the tar becomes thicker and floats. 

Warmed by the sun (or human feet stepping on it), tar becomes stickier, he said, and isn’t cause for worry, though it’s an inconvenience. 

On the beach, tar looks like a pebble covered in sand, earning the name “tarball,” Norris said. “They can be avoided if you just avoid stepping on things that look like rocks.”

“I’ve rarely seen tarballs on our beaches here, but it also might be a function of what the direction of the winds are and where the water is coming from,” he added.

“Tar mostly is not a concern, unless there’s lots of it,” Norris noted, and a big problem with tarballs would lead to active cleanup.

Removing tar from skin with WD-40 is fine, Norris said. Any organic solvent – Norris has used paint thinner, gasoline – should dissolve the tar.

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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