Kayaking Alaska in the Exxon Valdez’ Shadow

The massive oil spill devastated the Prince William Sound shore 21 years ago; now the wildlife and vistas are making a comeback

The wrinkled Blackstone Glacier absorbs every color of the spectrum except blue, so the crevasses are a brilliant, Gatorade-like aquamarine. (Megan Gambino)

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The death counts were staggering: 1,000 sea otters, 151 bald eagles, 838 cormorants, 1,100 marbled murrelets, over 33,189 other birds, not to mention the carcasses that sank or were never found. Fourteen of the 36 killer whales in the pod residing in the Sound disappeared. Just last year, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council listed ten species, including bald eagles, murres, harbor seals and some salmon, as “recovered”; another ten, including killer whales, sea otters, mussels and harlequin ducks, as “recovering”; and two—Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots—as “not recovering.”

On our second day, we stuff our tents, sleeping bags, food and dry sacks of clothes into the storage compartments in our kayaks and paddle about five miles to our next campsite. We closely follow the bay’s steep cliffs, floating into narrow fjords and wandering close enough to waterfalls to feel their spray. Marbled murrelets, tiny seabirds whose extent of recovery is unknown, duck underwater when we come close. Otherwise, the water is as smooth as glass.

“You’re moving so slowly,” says Paul Twardock, an associate professor of outdoor studies at Alaska Pacific University and author of Kayaking and Camping in Prince William Sound. “You’re immersed in the sense that you’re seeing, hearing and smelling everything very, very up close and personal.”

It is this intimacy that allows Twardock, who has been kayaking in the Sound since 1985, to remember all too well the nauseating fumes on Perry Island’s Day Care Cove in the spring of 1989. Fellow kayaker Marybeth Holleman can’t shake how the waves, so heavy with oil, didn’t even make a lapping sound.

“When I go out there now, I love it. But there is always this undercurrent of grief,” says Holleman. “When I see a harlequin duck, I’m delighted that it’s alive. I’m also feeling a little bit of anxiety wondering if it’s healthy or if it’s ingesting oiled food. When I see a harbor seal, is it one of the ones that are blind? It’s always part of the experience now.” Her book Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost is about falling in love with the place, witnessing it being irreparably harmed, then learning to love and advocate for what remains.

Holleman sees fewer sea otters and orcas on her kayak trips than she did pre-spill, and Twardock, fewer common murres and cormorants. But both kayakers agree that it is hard to link fewer sightings directly to the oil spill given that there are other factors at play, such as global warming and increased recreational use. “The reality is that environments are changing and responding to many, many different things. And as time goes on, the oil is only one of those things,” says Stan Senner, director of conservation science at the Ocean Conservancy’s office in Portland, Oregon and former science coordinator for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, the media almost instinctively began comparing the ensuing oil spill to the one at Prince William Sound, a site still recovering 21 years later. The Exxon Valdez oil spill had been the largest oil spill in U.S. waters up until the BP spill, and there were certainly striking similarities: the potential for oil to persist and have toxic effects for years to come; the governments’ and companies’ lack of transparency; and the devastating social impact. “There were things that people along the Gulf said, fishermen, people that just lived there and loved the place, that could have been direct quotes from what was said here 21 years ago,” says Holleman. “It reopened old wounds.”

In the cold, sheltered waters of Prince William Sound, heavy crude oil spilled in a matter of hours, on the surface, within sight of shoreline. Meanwhile, in the warm, rocky waters of the Gulf, over 200 million gallons of oil—18 times that of the Exxon Valdez spill—spewed over the course of three months, 5,000 feet deep and 50 miles offshore. Each variable affects the rate at which the oil degrades.

“There are a lot of questions: How bad is it? How big is it? How long will it last?” says Richard Steiner. “The simple answer to all of those is it’s too big, too bad and it will last too long. We knew on the first day of this thing that this was a disaster of sufficient scale to warrant everything possible to prevent it in the future.”

The final day, we get the blustery, wet weather I expect from Alaska. We paddle four miles diagonally across the bay, waves splashing over our spray skirts. By the time we reach the beach where Honey Charters picks us up, I am drenched, but satisfied to have tried my hand at the rougher waters.


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