Alaska's Orcas

25 Years Since Exxon Valdez

On March 24th 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into one of the most pristine environments on the planet. It was one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in the history of the United States. 

The toxic oil wreaked havoc upon local wildife; 1,000 to 5,500 sea otters died in the months following the spill, and it was only within the past few weeks that it was announced that the otters had returned to pre-spill numbers. 30,000 dead birds were recovered, but scientist estimate that 100,000-690,000 birds were actually killed. 

And then there were the orcas. 

On the day the spill occurred, the local orcas made the devastating mistake of swimming through the oily waters. The second photo is of those orcas, the AT1 transients. Prior to the spill, there were about 22 orcas in the population; small, but they were still able to reproduce successfully. But 9 whales disappeared after the spill. It is assumed the missing whales died after inhaling the toxic vapors given off by the oil or from eating heavily oiled harbor seals. Since 1989, a total of 15 out of 22 whales have gone missing. Only 7 remain, and not a single calf has been born in 25 years. This genetically unique population, one that has hunted the waters of the sound since perhaps the last Ice Age, is quickly slipping towards extinction, and soon their special and one-of-a-kind calls will no longer echo throughout Prince William Sound.

The AB resident pod was also in rough shape following the disaster. The large pod was seen swimming in the oil slicks in Knight Island Passage 7 days after the spill, and researchers confirmed that 7 out of 36 orcas had gone missing in just the week since the spill. It was later confirmed that they died. The following spring, another 6 orcas died, including a mother that left behind six of her children, one being a young calf. Three of the orphaned calves died in the following years. Normally the mortality rate for orcas is around 2%, but after the spill the rate for AB rose as high as 20.7%. In addition, the dorsal fins of a few males collapsed. Pictured above is the male AB3 before and after the oil spill. He was a healthy and robust whale in the years before the spill, but afterwards he was sluggish, not approachable, and breathed heavily and slowly. He died a few years later. Today AB pod is doing better, but is not fully recovered. Calves have been born into the pod and seem to be doing well, but it will be awhile before this pod shakes off the terrible effects of Exxon Valdez. 

If you walk along the beaches of Prince William Sound today, all seems well. You can spot numerous seabirds, sea otters, seals, and even orcas. The environment appears healthy and clean. And for the most part, it is. But if you take some time and turn over a few rocks, you can find oil, still there after 25 long years. 

Let us hope we have learned something in the years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and let us hope that we never again witness another environmental disaster like this. 

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