For the unsuspecting UCSB student, there are certain telltale signs that spring has arrived. Bodies, pale from winter, finally exchange their sweatpants for a coat of Banana Boat. The nearly palpable summer sun inspires long days of laying out that turn into even longer nights of partying. And if all other indicators are not so obvious, one event is guaranteed to show that spring quarter has commenced: Floatopia.
On Saturday afternoon, April 4, nearly 12,000 partygoers convened on Isla Vista’s narrow coastline to partake in this quintessential beach bash. From Devereux Beach to Campus Point, masses of college students swarmed for a spot on the half-mile stretch of sand to drink, dance, and float among the waves. Homemade rafts and store-bought inner tubes, filled to the brim with beer-toting celebrants, spilled across the sea side-by-side like bowls of cereal floating in a milky ocean. Hundreds watched from their balconies on Del Playa’s cliffs as deejays set up camp every quarter-mile, setting the tone for the thousands of beachgoers.
This year’s number of drunken and debauched attendees trumped those of years past and even rivaled Isla Vista’s traditional Halloween gathering. The unexpected turnout-which tripled last year’s count of 4,000 and blew 2007’s estimate of 300 people out of the water-may have spelled success for those participating, but created a nightmare for the county.
According to Lieutenant Brian Olmstead, head of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Floatopia will end up costing the county tens of thousands of dollars. “It’s an unsponsored event so no one can take responsibility,” said Olmstead. “The county has to pay for the [medical response, police presence, and cleanup]. They don’t get reimbursed because there isn’t [anyone who] promoted [the event] that can be billed. It all comes from taxpayers.”
Even since its first event-which some say dates back to 1982, but seems more likely to be rooted in a 2006 raft-with-keg launched by graduating engineering students-no one organization has been responsible for establishing the annual beach bash. According to UCSB Excursion Club’s director Joshua Taylor, the traditional practice of organizing the event is “like Halloween,” meaning that people come no matter by whom or how it’s promoted. However, the UCSB Excursion Club was responsible for creating this year’s event invitation on Facebook, the social networking Web site that, as in years past, proved responsible for such an explosive turnout.
“We’re an outdoors organization,” said Taylor. “We just want to get people out and moving and we had so much fun last year that we thought we’d create more press for our club and create the invitation this year.” The Facebook invite generated a final tally of 9,675 confirmed guests, a few thousand shy of the actual gathering. But unlike Halloween, a majority of the guests were actual Isla Vista residents.
“I could honestly say that Floatopia was the best day of my I.V. partying career,” said UCSB senior Mia Di Julio. She and her roommates barreled through Isla Vista with 30-packs under one arm and rafts held overhead by the other. Traffic jams across Sabado Tarde and Del Playa continued throughout the day as students attempted to squeeze inflatable pools, rafts, chairs, and pretty much anything that could float down the stairs to the beach.
Police enforcement and ambulances did the only thing they could: Watch as the unpredictable chaos ensued. Lt. Olmstead said he and his staff were aware of Floatopia, but did not anticipate 12,000 participants. With 12 deputies working (more than the normal number), Olmstead was forced to increase the count to 20 and also had to redistribute both campus and Goleta police because they needed more assistance. The county and UCSB fire departments redeployed resources to assist and rescue teams on jet skis; and helicopters were also deployed for medical evacuations. “We had to use units and ambulances that are usually needed elsewhere in the county : because we really did not know it was going to be this big,” said Olmstead.
In Olmstead’s opinion, Floatopia is less safe than Halloween in Isla Vista. “It’s more dangerous because of the number of people concentrated in one area with alcohol, plus the ocean and the kelp beds.” As feared, injuries did occur: Twelve were transported to the hospital by ambulance, and two people fell off the cliffs, one of whom was able to walk away while the other sustained a head injury. Several others cut their feet on broken bottles and at least one was hit in the head by a bottle thrown from balconies, injuries that led to numerous walk-ins at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital’s emergency room, which reported a raucous “Halloween-like atmosphere.” And there was the expected crime, too: Sixty-nine people were issued citations for various crimes (a majority for minor in possession) and 13 were booked into County Jail (mainly for being drunk in public).
All this had no effect on the crowd, as students continued to line the cliffs, throwing bottles and other objects down onto the masses. “I just got back up and started dancing,” said UCSB senior Ashley Moore, who was knocked unconscious by a football flung from the sky.
Though the celebration ended Saturday night, remnants were still visible from the I.V. cliffs as of press deadline, with abandoned rafts and crushed beer cans scattered across the sand. To some, this was the most heinous crime of all, especially for a student body that’s long prided itself on environmentalism. Bradley Cardinale, an assistant professor of ecology at UCSB, described Floatopia as “the most egregious events of dumping I have ever seen in this state.”
Both the Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board and Coastal Fund organized beach cleanups for the day of the event, but those efforts were thwarted because the party lasted much longer than expected. By the time of the second scheduled cleanup, most of the debris had already been carried out on the high tide. Many can collectors picked up after partyers as they left their trash behind, and the Excursion Club hosted an impromptu beach cleanup on Monday. But the beaches remain in a trashed state of disarray.
Amidst the spectacle caused by the dangerous and environmental concerns of Saturday’s events is the bottom line: Students had fun and a “Floatopia 2” invitation is already making the rounds on Facebook for next month. But while the students believe in the future of Floatopia, it remains to be seen how much the county will continue to put up with the environmental and public safety impacts and associated costs. The county’s 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents Isla Vista, understands that “everyone wants to have a good time” but echoed concerns about safety, and is also worried about its expansion. “I saw Floatopia last year and it seemed like a locals only event,” said Farr. “But, if this begins to attract people from all over, it [will create] a larger situation and dynamic that concerns us….I want to emphasize that those who participate need to be careful and aware of the dangers when combining alcohol consumption with cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. People can get killed and that’s why I’m so concerned.”
“I think we need to convey what kind of environmental impact this event has to the students and the out-of-towners, because most people don’t see the aftermath. Just like Halloween, most people enjoy themselves, and by the time they wake up the next morning, everything has been taken care of or cleaned up,” said Zekee Silos, the vice president of UCSB Associated Students.
“I really think the county and UCSB should capitalize on events [like this and Halloween] to make money for the county and the university, but I realize that they may not want to incur the liability that comes with that, or the association,” said Silos. “But I feel like if we can get these events to be more like Fiesta downtown, where culture is celebrated and people take more responsibility for what goes on, we can maybe please both sides.”