Chemistry 101

In a spacious, loft-style room overlooking Marina del Rey, a woman instructs two recent college grads in the proper way to fill a small plastic bag with seawater. This is no ordinary bag, but a clear, sealable device called a “whirl-pak,” used to collect samples of ocean water to be tested for pollutants.

Her name is Julie Barr, programs director of Santa Monica BayKeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the quality of our marine and coastal life. Drawing from funds awarded by the California Environmental Protection Agency, BayKeeper conducts year-round quarterly tests for bacteria levels and dissolved metals in storm drain runoff that enters our beach water. The results from the data are then used by the CalEPA to establish -- and hopefully help enforce -- maximum legal levels of contaminants. The members of BayKeeper are passionate about and devoted to their work, often braving the elements, trudging through thigh-high toxic waters, resurrecting kelp beds, patrolling for polluters and illegal fishing, and stopping thousands of tons of toxic waste from fouling the bay. And in SoCal, where on any given day the beaches are crammed with people, there’s always plenty of work to do, and plenty of dangers.

Steve Fleischli, BayKeeper‘s executive director, identifies bacteria as the major culprit and the greatest threat to human safety. “People should avoid swimming anywhere within 100 yards away from a flowing storm drain, and for at least three days after it rains,” he says. Quoting from a landmark epidemiology study by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, he counts off some of the dire consequences of swimming in bacteria-laden ocean water: fever, diarrhea (sometimes bloody diarrhea), sore throat, infected cuts, swimmer’s ear and respiratory ailments.

Fleischli emphasizes that the beach areas that usually fare the worst in terms of bacteria levels include Santa Monica Canyon -- “notoriously bad because of the large storm drain that flows continuously throughout the year” -- the Santa Monica Pier, Cabrillo Beach near the harbor in San Pedro and Mothers‘ Beach in Marina del Rey.

Heal the Bay, another nonprofit beach-rescue organization, maintains an online “Beach Report Card” that supports Fleischli’s statements regarding bacterial pollution. Log on to its Web site and check out the Web-based interactive coastal map, which displays the water-quality status of beaches along the Santa Monica Bay coastline, from Point Dume to San Pedro. Place your cursor over a blue dot (indicating an “A” or “B” grade), and a cute little picture of a happy fish in clean water pops up. Place it over a red dot (“D” or “F” grade), and get a not-so-cute dead fish in polluted water . . .

The late-afternoon sun is fading, and Julie Barr is finished with her demonstration. Two women, one a young marine-biology student, gather around a map of the Santa Monica Bay. For the next 12 months, these eager volunteers will, every four weeks, head out at low tide to monitor the waters of our beaches. Barr hands them lunch-box pouches filled with rubber gloves, data-collection sheets, antibacterial gel, permanent markers and, of course, a fistful of whirl-paks. Slowly but surely, the BayKeepers are bringing back the magic for dolphins, divers and beach-lovers alike.

For more info: Santa Monica BayKeeper, (310) 305-9645; Heal the Bay Beach Report Card at

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