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Field Observations of Ixtoc I oil and tar in Texas and Mexico

during 1979-1980 and beyond


By Wes Tunnell
15 May 2015
The following list of shoreline locations were visited in 1979 and 1980 to study or simply
observe oil and tar on Gulf of Mexico beaches and rocky shorelines. Several trips were in
association with my graduate classes that took field trips to Mexico; one major trip in October
1979 by two of my graduate students (Quenton Dokken and Leo Trevino) to the Veracruz
shoreline and Enmedio Island and Reef, where I took my Coral Reef Ecology Class for decades;
and, one longer trip was provided by a small grant in 1980 which allowed me to take and
extended field investigation of many southern Mexican beaches and shorelines during July and
August 1980 by driving to those sites to observe and make photographs. In addition, some
observations were made in later years when I lived in the Yucatan for one year (1985-86) and
others were made in 2010 after the BP Macondo Deepwater Horizon Spill when I took three
separate expeditions back to the southern Gulf sites. Photographs are available from all of these
sites noted, except one (Montepio, Veracruz). Google Earth was used to get the approximate
locations for coordinates (latitude and longitude).

Texas Ixtoc oil reached the South Texas beaches in August 1979 and eventually extended
about 150 miles along the coast until a tropical storm in mid-September cleaned the beaches of
much of the oil and reversed the currents (a natural event each fall) to the south. A number of
scientific papers are available about this work (e.g. Gundlach et al. 1981, Tunnell et al. 1981).
See several photos of oiled beaches, tar balls, and tar mats on Padre Island.

Mexico (Mexican states are listed below in bold in counter-clockwise fashion where oil or tar
was found, starting just south of Texas in Tamaulipas and extending around to Yucatan state.):
Tamaulipas La Pesca, beaches just north of Rio Soto La Marina
23degrees 47 07.14 N x 97 44 08.53 W
March 1980 (visited with Tunnell Estuarine Biology Class)
Observed oil/tar grated into wind-rows oriented north south on backshore of beach
See photo Tamaulipas-La Pesca 1980
Veracruz Tuxpan beach just north of Tuxpan jetties at mouth of Tuxpan River
20 58 23.87 N x 97 18 25.85 W
October 1979
Observed piles of oily sand that had been raked or scooped from the beach and piled on
the backshore near and in the dunes; revisited this site on 24 July 1980 and the piles of
oily sand were gone, but I did observe a light scattering of tar balls on the beach
See photo Tuxpan beach oiled sand piles-Oct 1980
Veracruz Punta Delgado (or El Moro) rocky point/rocky shoreline and lighthouse area
19 51 36.09 N x 96 27 35.86 W
October 1979

Observed oil/tar in among rocks and on rocky cobblestone shoreline


See photo Punta Delgado-oil in rocks-Oct 1979

Veracruz Enmedio Island and Reef off Anton Lizardo just south of Veracruz City
19 16 05.07 N x 95 56 19.46 W
Locals in Vercaruz stated that the oil stayed away from their area until the September
1979 tropical storm pushed the oil in towards the reefs and islands of Veracruz. First oil
observation visit in October 1979, then repeated visits in June throughout the 1980s and
early 1990s with my Coral Reef Ecology Class (field study site for two weeks each June);
visited again in August 2002 during HRI Veracruz Reefs Expedition; visited three time
during summer of 2010 with media personnel and National Geographic
In October 1979, observed lots of oil in water between mainland and Enmedio Island and
Reef (about 5 miles offshore), lots of oil all around island and much oil in shallow lagoon
around island
Multiple photos provided (look for Enmedio in photo tag)
Veracruz La Gaviota Beach between Veracruz city and Alvarado
18 49 55.89 N x 95 51 42.71 W
27 July 1980
Observed small tar balls on the upper beach and piles of oily sand spaced out every 50100 meters along the beach
See photo Veracruz-La Gaviota-1 1980
Veracruz Montepio, San Andres Tuxtlas Mountains, rocky shoreline
18 38 44.28 N x 95 05 45.31 W
28 July 1980
Observed some very solid tar mats in intertidal zone. No soft oil or tar.
No photos this location
Tabasco Sanchez Magellanes, coastal fishing village (mainly oysters)
18 17 56.30 N x 93 51 23.37 W
30 July 1980
Observed layer of oily sand about 1 foot thick at a level about 6 feet or so above high
tide. Perhaps the oil was washed ashore during the September 1979 tropical storm or
during a winter front to get that high up the beach
Two images: Tabasco-Sanchez Mag 2 1980 and Tabasco-Sanchez Mag 3 1980
Campeche remote highway area south of Champoton, Campeche. Not sure of exact location.
Approximate only: 19 14 39.29 N x 90 49 56.26 W
2 August 1980 (visited again in 2010 and saw small patches of tar on rocks, very little)
Observed the heaviest tar mats of the entire 1980 trip here. Large tar mats in supratidal
zone above limestone rocky shore and among rocks along rocky shore.
See photos Campeche-1 1980 and Campeche-2 1980

Campeche the mangrove coastline here extends about 100 miles north of Campeche,
Campeche. I visited two localities there in 2010 with National Geographic and CNN to search
for Ixtoc oil or tar. We found it in two localities, but we were unable to prove it was Ixtoc oil.
CINVESTAV, a research unit in Merida, confirmed it was from the Cantarell Oil Field where
Ixtoc was located, but they could not confirm Ixtoc, and other oil spills have occurred there since
Ixtoc. The local fishermen who took us there guaranteed us that the two sites were Ixtoc tar.
These localities can only be reached by boat.
20 40 18.42 N x 90 26 41.16 W just south of Isla Arena, Campeche (July 2010)
20 24 24.58 N x 90 29 30.81 W unnamed site, further south of Isla Arena (Nov.
2010)
We found thin tar mats among the roots of the mangroves in the mangrove forest/swamp
that was about inch thick in both places
See photos for Isla Arena and Campeche mangroves
Yucatan Isla Perez, Alacran Reef, 70 mi north of Prgresso, Yucatan on the Campeche Bank
22 22 44.78 N x 89 41 05.00 southeast corner of Isla Perez in coral rubble
I visited Isla Perez in January 1986 for a coral reef and bird study, and when walking the
island perimeter, I discovered a large tar mat on the southeast corner. This may or may
not be Ixtoc oil/tar, but I am unaware of other spills in the area that came this far north.
See photo: Alacran-Isla Perez 1986