Kenai, one of the last two plucky sea otters who survived the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, died on Tuesday at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound off of Alaska it unloaded 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the sensitive ecosystem, blanketing 1,300 miles of coastline in viscous sludge. The results were catastrophic. 2,800 sea otters were killed by the spill, including Kenai’s mother. But Kenai, who fit in the palm of her rescuer’s hand at the time, survived more than just an oil spill. As the Associated Press article about her notes, the animal’s longevity offered a window into otter biology:
"In her later years, she provided much information to scientists about geriatric sea otters. Kenai suffered a stroke, underwent ovarian cyst surgery and needed a root canal. She lived to age 23 1/2, while the typical life span of a sea otter is between 15 and 18 years."
That leaves 24 year-old Homer, of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington as the lone surviving otter from the disaster.
Apart from otters, the spill killed 300 harbor seals, 900 bald eagles and 250,000 seabirds. Three species of cormorant, the common loon, the harbor seal, the harlequin duck, the pacific herring and the pigeon guillemot have still not fully recovered. But the spill had consequences for more than just Alaskan wildlife. Four humans died during cleanup efforts and the spill cost more than $300 million to Alaska’s commercial fishing industry.
While the Valdez disaster was more than 20 years ago the Deepwater Horizon spill reminds us even with all the advantages of modern 21st century technology, whether during drilling or shipping, oil spills are unavoidable. But as Kenai reminds us, if given a chance, nature is amazingly tenacious and resilient.
Well, BP’s “static kill” seems to have finally plugged the leak in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 3 months after it began spewing oil into the ocean. (Though the final nail in the coffin won’t come until the “bottom kill” succeeds.)
And despite the optimistic reports today, the amount of oil remaining in the gulf is still equivalent to at least four times the amount that spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, and possibly double that.
NOAA predicts that 26% of the oil is “residual” or still residing in the gulf and that another 24% was “dispersed” but much of that may still be hanging around waiting for mother nature (a.k.a. bacteria) to break it down. Further, NOAA says some of the oil is “dissolved” which doesn’t mean the same thing as “disappeared.” So more than half of the oil could still be dwelling in the Gulf – maybe as much as 8 Exxon Valdez spills’ worth.
And there are still many, many unanswered questions.
From yesterday’s Washington Post:
BP's well was gushing faster than expected, government experts said. The latest estimate pegs original "flow rate" at 62,000 barrels a day (2.6 million gallons), higher than the last estimate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels. As the reservoir was depleted, the rate was reduced to 53,000 barrels a day. They calculated the total oil coming from the blown-out well at 4.9 million barrels, more than 18 times the amount of oil that was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Dr. Jeffrey Short, Oceana's Pacific Science Director, recently retired from a 31-year career as a research chemist at NOAA, where he worked primarily on oil pollution and other contaminant issues.
He was the leading chemist for the governments of Alaska and the United States for the natural resource damage assessment and restoration of Exxon Valdez oil spill, and guided numerous studies on the distribution, persistence and effects of the oil.
The Exxon Valdez is to date the worst oil spill to have occurred in US waters. It has been well studied and provided twenty years worth of information on how ecosystems recover from oil spills.
This is the second in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.
Today’s featured finalist is Jay Holcomb, the Executive Director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). Coincidentally, Jay is down on the Gulf coast as we speak, preparing to lead his organization’s efforts to clean up oiled wildlife from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
It just keeps getting worse.
A NOAA scientist has concluded that oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day, five times the initial 1,000 per-day estimate. And a third leak was discovered yesterday afternoon.
If the estimates are correct, the spill, which is nearly the size of Jamaica, could match or exceed the 11 million gallons spilt from the Exxon Valdez within two months -- becoming the largest oil spill in U.S. history.