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.