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Expedition Log: August 2, 2001

The Day the Water Died
Molly McCammon

Prince William Sound

The water was still as the sun started to turn the mountain peaks pink, then gold. During the night we had steamed past Herring Bay on Knight Island -- ground zero of the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound. Now the ship was anchored off Squire Point at the southern end of Knight Island. Our day began with a Zodiac tour of the small inlets and bays of western Knight Island. It was hard to believe that only 12 years ago, these same inlets and bays were filled with goopy North Slope crude oil and an invasion of cleanup crews armed with pressurized hot water hoses.

Bald eagles perched in silver spruce snags, marbled murrelets dove for fish, and a few sea otters lazed in sheltered bays. But our group today was fascinated with the intertidal and subtidal life at low tide. Fucus (the most prevalent seaweed) glowed gold in the sunlight. Sea stars, barnacles and mussels captured our attention -- life in minute detail. But it was here in the intertidal zone that the most damage from the oil spill occurred. The Alutiiq people in Port Graham called it "the day the water died."

March 24, 1989, shortly after midnight. The TV Exxon Valdez was driven up "hard aground" and the largest oil spill in North American history began. For three days, the weather was calm, but no response boats arrived. There was no response, because there was no boom, no crews, and no preparation for an event of this nature. It was only a matter of time until a huge storm blew the oil west and south and soon out of Prince William Sound.

The number of carcasses started to grow - otters, seals, murres, harlequin ducks. Knight Island was one of the most heavily impacted areas, and even today only a few sea otters inhabit these bays, and the numbers of harlequin ducks and pigeon guillemots, which feed mostly on intertidal life, are still depressed. It was hard to be at Knight Island, so close to Herring Bay and Bay of Isles, and know that Prince William Sound had still not recovered. Even after 12 years oil is still present in significant amounts, much of it still fresh and toxic. Just looking at the beauty of the Sound, you would never know this unless you knew what the Sound had been like before.

At 11 a.m. we returned to the ship to hear a presentation from marine mammal expert Kathy Frost on the status of seals, sea lions and beluga whales in Alaska. The news is not good on many fronts, with the current thinking now being that major shifts in the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem (including some warming ocean temperatures) have resulted in major ecological changes, including decreases in the forage fish richest in fat and nutrients.


Tiger glacier

The mountains behind Tiger Glacier catch the last rays of the sun just before everyone headed to bed. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

During lunch we steamed past the northern end of LaTouche Island and Sleepy Bay -- the poster child for the spill and cleanup efforts -- and anchored off an old copper mine visited by the Harriman Expedition in 1899. The mine was the second largest copper producer in Alaska (after the Kennicott Mine in McCarthy) until its ore fizzled out in the 1930s. Most of the old buildings have been bulldozed over, and all that remains are a lot of tailings and the old school house. The land is now owned by the estate of the former head of the Republican Party of Alaska -- Cliff Groh, Sr. -- who has subdivided the land and sold a few lots.

An old road of mine tailings led our group up to the original copper pit. But that wasn't the main attraction. Instead, we were all fascinated by the wetland/fen life of sedges and grasses, bog orchids, sundews, and deer cabbage. Conrad Field was the lecturer of the day as we wound our way up the hillside amid incredible views. We met two locals who live full-time in Eagle River, Alaska, but visit their recreational cabin frequently during the summer months.

The day was hot and sunny, and the two Allisons could not resist taking a swim. Back on the ship, we swung north and west once again into Icy Bay -- a spectacular fjord with an impressive tidewater glacier, Tiger Glacier, at its end. The lighting was amazing. The scholars all gathered on the upper deck for a group photo. What a brilliant, crazy and motley crew.

The light is fading now. We're almost having night at this time of the summer. As we pass islands of brooding forests, sheer peaks, and hanging snowfields and glaciers, it's not hard to imagine what the Harriman Expedition must have felt more than a century ago. I'm sure that they felt what we all felt today: that we are incredibly lucky to be in a place of such beauty and majesty.

(View the day's photos)


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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