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.
This is part of a series of posts about our Pacific Hotspots expedition.
California Leg, Day 2
This morning after we passed the barking sea lions on the breakwater at the end of the harbor, we traversed through fog so thick there were no signs of land anywhere to be seen. We pushed trough swells upwards of 6 feet to get to our fist dive site of the day. A mola mola (aka ocean sunfish) we passed along the way didn’t seem to mind the intense swells as it basked on the ocean surface.
After motoring out 20 miles across Monterey Bay (north of the Monterey Canyon), we deployed the ROV at the former California halibut trawl grounds. As a direct result of the work of Oceana, this area has been closed to bottom trawling since 2006.
The seafloor here is primarily soft sediment and ranges in depth from 50-250 feet. The areas were teeming with signs of life, including burrows, tracks, and holes. Some places had a lot of juvenile fish and crabs suggesting these areas may be a nursery ground for fishery species. Overall, we were surprised by the diversity of habitat formations and creatures.