Local legend has it that The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison spent an acid-addled evening on Sands Beach staring at the lights of nearby oil platform Holly, which inspired the song “Crystal Ship.”

The same view prompted former UCSB student and musician Jack Johnson to write the environmentally conscious tune “The Horizon Has Been Defeated.”

Indeed, Sands’ beauty has a history of inspiring both environmental activism on behalf of the animals that call it home, and art celebrating its sublime vistas. The surrounding area is also a productive petroleum field, home to a former opulent estate that was later transformed into a scandal-plagued mental institution and the vulnerable yet adorable Western Snowy Plovers.


Sands Beach was originally part of a Mexican land grant awarded to cattle rancher Nicholas Augustus Henry Den in 1842. Following his death in 1863, his heirs divided and sold most of the land, which included the area adjacent to Sands Beach. The land, including Sands, remained one of the only areas in Den family possession after Col. William Welles Hollister, for whom Hollister Road is named, purchased the land from the family.

Remnants of the beach’s past still exist, including a memorial gravestone to Colin Powys Campbell, a retired British army officer who built a major estate on the land when he purchased it in 1919. Many of the original buildings from the Campbell estate are still present at Sands today, including the access road, barn and the family’s mansion, currently the main building of the Devereux School for children and adults with developmental problems.

Part of the Campbell family’s former beach house, located at the base of the cliff, currently serves as the site of a display of brightly colored aerosol murals. Commonly referred to as “the jail,” the walls of the crumbling beach house are coated with layers of spray paint that have been documented by UCSB art studio professor Michael Arntz in a series of photographs on display in Davidson Library.

According to the description accompanying the display, Arntz said he wanted to capture the ever-changing artwork because it incorporates a wide community of artists into a continual process of cultural production.

He said each individual layer is not as important to him as the entire evolution of the murals through the different reevaluations and revisions of each separate artist’s additions.

The area has also historically been involved in oil production. Venoco Inc.’s offshore oil drilling operation near Sands’ coast may seem to mar the beach’s beauty, as Johnson suggests in his song, but according to Venoco’s website, the natural oil seeps present in the Santa Barbara Channel would make the beach virtually unusable if the oil rigs were not present. More than 1,200 natural petroleum seeps have flooded the channel with tar for centuries, which provided local Native Americans with a highly valued resource for caulking boats, waterproofing and other domestic and maritime tasks.

Beach Bums

In order to preserve the Sands ecosystem, the adjacent Coal Oil Point Reserve was formed with a mission to inform the public about the various species inhabiting the beach, restore coastal habitats and conduct research on human environmental impact in the area.

With their khaki safari vests and ample sunscreen, the Snowy Plover Docents have been a permanent fixture on the beach since 2000, when the reserve launched the program to monitor a fenced enclosure – the birds’ nesting area – that stretches along the reserve’s 150 acres.

Third-year environmental studies major and Snowy Plover Docent Coryl Dolfin said the Western Snowy Plover is a species similar to the Sandpiper, and is naturally attracted to the coastal environment at Sands.

The program, which has affectionately nicknamed the Plovers “Beach Bums,” aims to lure the birds back to the beach environment they abandoned in the 1970s due to increased human presence.

The Endangered Species Act currently protects the Snowy Plover, mandating that Coal Oil Point Reserve and the university encourage the species’ growth. Volunteers work a minimum of eight hours each month in two- to three-hour shifts to educate beachgoers about the Snowy Plover and to encourage bird nesting on the beach.

The docents say the program has seen great success – the plover population has grown from just one nest and one chick during the initial 2001 mating season to 57 chicks last year.

If beachgoers get too close to the enclosure or violate any of the other reserve regulations, docents are instructed to politely inform them of the reasons behind the rules and to ask their compliance. Dolfin said the Docents’ main goal is to further assist the plovers in repopulating, not to bother surfers.

“You can come look at the plovers, walk along the beach and stop periodically,” Dolfin said. “We just don’t want to do anything that would prohibit the plovers from feeding on the bugs in the seaweed on the shore, like leaving a bag or sunbathing near the enclosure.”

Dolfin said the program welcomes visitors to have a positive experience while they spend time at the beach.

“We want people to continue using the beach,” Dolfin said. “People think we aren’t connected to nature, but we are.”

Save the Whales

“So far today we’ve seen a lot of surfers and dolphins, but no whales,” environmentalist Michael Smith said during one windswept afternoon at Sands as he scanned the horizon for a glimmer of a gigantic gray whale migrating through the Santa Barbara Channel.

As Gray Whales Count Project Coordinator, Smith and his team of volunteers will be a common sight at Sands as they hope to collect data about population growth in the threatened species by counting the number of whales that migrate through the channel.

This year’s count began in late January, and will run for 15 weeks.

The project is an outgrowth of a joint effort by Coal Oil Point Reserve, the American Cetacean Society and the Cascadia Research Collective to conduct research and educate anyone interested in the once-endangered species. Though whale sightings are scarce at the moment, Smith said they will soon increase.

“In the spring they will pass by a lot closer with their calves.”

Catching Waves

Visitors to Sands are rewarded with great surf and a positive atmosphere. Frequent Sands surfer Taylor Ernst said the beach is one of his favorite places in Santa Barbara for the sights, waves and human interaction it affords.

“I can walk to it and I consistently have people I know there,” said Ernst, a fourth-year history of public policy major. “And, now and then, you can find yourself sitting next to a professor who taught you religious studies last quarter, and you can talk about the afterlife in between catching waves.”