Exxon Valdez: Visiting Prince William Sound 25 years later

Beautiful Prince William Sound, Alaska.

The sheen of oil is gone, flushed away by winter storms and the perpetual shifting of saltwater. Otters still float atop the waves, clinging to each other and kelp beds, staring at passersby with wide eyes and furry faces. Sea lions, whales, sea birds of all species – they’re all around, too, and yet whenever I travel through Prince William Sound near Valdez, I can’t help but think of images from this same area, 25 years ago.

I was a college student in 1989; wandering my way through classes on a lovely spring day in March, taking a few minutes to relax near the quiet boating canals near Seattle Pacific University. I remember that flowers were starting to bloom, and that a tanker, the Exxon Valdez, had spilled oil in Alaska overnight.

courtesy lifesciencefoundation.org

Indeed, the Exxon Valdez had spilled oil, around 11 million gallons of crude, to be exact, after she hit rugged Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, seven miles from the Alaska Native village of Tatilek, and in the middle of a prime halibut and shrimp fishery. In the days that followed March 24, 1989, nearly 1,300 miles of coastline was affected, the slick covering 460 miles total.

I have a thing for otters.

A pair of humpback whales cruise Prince William Sound near Valdez.

Fishing boats pull in pink salmon near Valdez.

Herring, otters, orca, ducks, shrimp, salmon; the list of creatures affected was lengthy, and diverse. Nothing, it seemed, was spared, including the economic stability for residents of Valdez, Cordova, Kodiak, Tatitlek, and other communities. The world watched as Exxon Mobile contractors used hoses, pads, booms, dispersants, and who-knows-what-else to sop of the gooey, smelly, poisonous mess. Even today, 25 years later, some beaches still have the persistent residue on rocks if you dig down just a few inches.

The town of Valdez from the air.

What can we, visitors to these pristine waters, discover 25 years after the Exxon Valdez cracked open her hull and every belief we had that oil transport via water was safe? A lot, it turns out. With children of that generation now adults with their own children, today’s anniversary date means an opportunity to share the history, emotions, and lessons learned from March 24, 1989.

Image courtesy Anchorage Museum

Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. An excellent place to begin, the Anchorage Museum offers a permenant exhibit to explain the connection between Alaskans and oil, including a number of displays about the Alyeska pipeline and its terminus in Valdez. For older children, especially, the reality of oil usage and transport becomes clear after standing in front of a section of pipeline and then in front of the display about the Exxon Valdez spill.

Pratt Museum, Homer.  It’s always surprising to me that a museum with such attention to art and Native Culture would have such an extensive display about the Exxon Valdez spill, but then, Homer is a fishing town, and they, too, saw negative results from the mess. Located in the lower floor of the building, the exhibit called “Darkened Waters” allows visitors to hear audio transcripts of then-Captain Joseph Hazlewood discussing the grounding and subsequent spill with responders. It’s amazing, and so are the newspaper articles. Best for kids in upper elementary, middle, and high school.

Valdez Museum. Like the exhibit about the Great Alaska Earthquake, also commemorated this week, the Exxon Valdez displays are gritty, realistic, and heartbreaking. Nearly at ground zero, Valdez lost millions of dollars in economic status and equal numbers of animals and birds with which they peacefully co-existed. Visit this place, talk to volunteers, and ask about thePrince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council, the watchdogs of all sound health and community oil spill response, created after the spill. Kids in grades 3 and up will appreciate this exhibit.

The late Stan Stephens, instrumental in protecting and advocating for Prince William Sound.

Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises. The Stephens family wer, and are crusaders for the health of Prince William Sound, and there is no better way to honor that effort than aboard a day cruise from Valdez. Glaciers, a ton of wildlife, and amazing views of Bligh Reef, the sound, and some of that shoreline that has struggled admirably to return to its pristine condition. All Stan Stephens captains and crew are well-versed in the Exxon Valdez story, and can share valuable information about policies and procedures implemented since then. The Great Alaska TourSaver coupon book offers a 2-for-1 deal on Stan Stephens day cruises, too. All ages will enjoy this opportunity.

AMHS fast ferry 'Chenega' delivers visitors to Valdez in three hours.

The Alaska Marine Highway (ferry) also sails between Whittier, Cordova, and Valdez, with plenty of time to view icy glaciers, the reef, and an occasional whale, sea otter, or sea  lion. We like to drive one way and sail the next if including Valdez in our destination.

For more information about Valdez, check out their Visitor Center info, HERE. 

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