By Eva Saulitis
In 1989, Eva Saulitis was a young researcher studying the orcas in Prince William Sound when on March 24th the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef and began hemmoraging oil into what would become one of the worst spills in history. Her book, Into Great Silence, chronicles the fates of those many orcas devastated by the spill, including one group who lost fifteen members—nine in the first year, over a third of their population—and still has not produced a single calf in the 25 years since the event. Saulitis writes beautifully of the pain and guilt she and other researchers felt about their inability to staunch the tide: “I never want to leave the Sound, but especially not now. Because, unlike the younger me, I know what happens next. I won’t be able to stop it. No matter what, the oil will pour from the ship’s breached holds. The oil will spread. It will coat rocks and barnacles and kelp and otters and harbor seals and birds. It will kill orcas. It will change everything I know, everything I love.” In the excerpt below, Saulitis recounts the first days of the disaster, as the realization sank in about its scope and impact on the fragile ecosystems—and orcas—they had come to know and love.
In Fairbanks, four hundred miles from the Sound, the spill remained abstract in those first days. A high pressure system held time and the snow-blanketed Alaskan Interior in suspension, the clear sky stretched taut as a seal skin tacked up to cure. For two days after the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spewed millions of gallons of crude oil into the Sound, the archipelago throbbed under that same dazzling latewinter sun. On those windless days, the oil spread in a slow-moving acre from the point of rupture, as though uncertain. Time was an open window, waiting. Something would be done, I thought, the oil boomed off, sucked up, burned. But little was done, and the window slammed shut.
Sixteen hours before the tanker had struck Bligh Reef, Cordova fisherwoman and activist Riki Ott had testified to the Mayor’s Oil Action Committee in Valdez, where the laden Exxon Valdez prepared to leave the pipeline terminal. “Fishermen feel that we are playing a game of Russian roulette,” she’d said, arguing for greater industry oversight and disaster preparation. “When, not if ‘The Big One’ does occur—” Her words, like the spill’s timing—exactly twenty-five years after the Good Friday earthquake that had devastated the Sound—were prophetic. As the powers that be—the pipeline service company Alyeska, Exxon, the state, the feds, the Coast Guard—argued about what to do—as they scrambled to find enough boats, skimmers, and booms from around the planet to suck up and store the oil; as they argued over using chemical dispersants to break apart and sink the crude, or fire to burn it; as they ignored warnings of fishermen, who spread maps out to show them how the oil would travel when the wind started blowing, as it soon would; as they dug booms from under ten-foot-high snow drifts in Valdez—a storm bore down on the Sound.
Meanwhile, Interior Alaska remained clear and still, adding to my sense of disconnection. On the evening of March 27, as I sat down in a crowded auditorium on the university campus, fellow grad student Matt Hare beside me for support, sixty-knot winds were churning millions of gallons of crude into a toxic lather called mousse, spreading it beyond any hope of containment. Wind and currents drove it south and west, just as fishermen had predicted, eventually, over the course of months, besmirching thirty-two hundred miles of shoreline, from the northern Sound to the Alaska Peninsula.
Before IMS scientists took to the stage, the lights dimmed, and images of the Sound were projected onto a screen, photographs taken by reporters and biologists of oiled beaches, oiled corpses of murres, pigeon guillemots, sea otters, and eagles flicking by in a numbing progression. I strove to recognize places in the photos, hoping I wouldn’t. But then I did. Blue sky, pale blue water snaked with shadows, the Pleiades, their tide-exposed sides tarred, gleaming black in the sunshine. And then. The massive black hulk of the tanker’s bow, its name painted white in block letters on the side. Nothing could be darker than that hull, I thought. But then I saw that something was darker. Black against black, four dorsal fins, four orcas, two males and two smaller ones, swam a few hundred yards off the bow. An L.A. Times photographer had captured the image the day after the tanker had run aground. The photograph jarred me from numbness. Were they transients?
My throat tight, I listened as the IMS scientists took to the mike, waiting to hear what they’d do to “help out in the Sound.” I’d approached some of them the previous fall, hoping to inspire more research with my reports of abundant marine life and few scientists. Logging and development threatened what was in essence a wilderness, I’d argued. No funding, they’d said. Now millions of dollars were poised over the scientists’ heads: federal money for damage assessment, in preparation for litigation against Exxon; Exxon money for counter-assessment, to fight the litigation. Most studies would commence without baseline data. Most damage would be reported as body counts. I remember nothing of the proposals advanced that night. I remember only one speaker, one of my professors, calling the oil spill a “great opportunity, a great experiment.” Whatever bedrock of logic underlay his words was lost on me. A few years before her death, the last full-blooded Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, of Cordova, spoke to a New Yorker reporter about the impending extinction of her language. When the reporter asked how she felt about being the last speaker of Eyak, Chief Marie replied, “How would you feel if your baby died? If someone asked you, ‘What was it like to see it lying in the cradle?’” Great opportunity. Great experiment. Like Marie, I tried to wrap my mind around an alien viewpoint. When I told Craig about the orcas in the slide presentation, he said the photo had been published on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. He’d asked the photographer for a copy of the negative, so Graeme could examine it under his scope. Even in the blown-up newspaper version Craig could tell they were transients, from their fin-shapes. On the trailing edge of one fin, he could make out a large notch. It was probably AT7, the Chugach transient we called Kaj. Craig had more disturbing news. When word of the spill had reached him, he’d been preparing Lucky Star for the spring herring fishery. After the storm broke, knowing the herring season was doomed, he, Olga, and Elli headed into the Sound. Olga was pregnant.
First, they’d joined a group of volunteer fishermen desperately trying to boom off the Port San Juan hatchery and Chenega Village before oil reached the southwestern Sound. Hearing reports of orcas off Point Helen, on March 31, eight days after the tanker grounding, they’d motored to Knight Island Passage. They’d found AB, AI, and AJ pods—over forty whales—resting north of Point Helen, five miles south of the advancing oil. As they’d photographed and checked off whales in the catalog, they’d realized that several AB pod members were missing. Two juveniles traveled without their mothers. On the data sheet Craig had summed up the encounter:
31 March 1989
Whales reported in this area for previous couple days perhaps enjoying this oil-free environment. 0810 animals move slowly most of the day, resting. Some echolocation and vocalizations in morning but then quiet. Begin heading up Knight Island Passage 1500, traveling. 1530 head through heavy sheen of oil 1 mi. N. of Gage Island. Rick Rosenthal observes whales swimming through oil from airplane.
As Craig and Olga had followed the whales north into the oil, past the Pleiades, past Whale Camp, Lucky Star’s hull had blackened along the waterline. Choking on fumes and worried about Elli and the baby Olga was carrying, they’d turned back toward the hatchery. Soon after, with a wildlife filmmaker, Craig had traveled to Herring Bay, at the Labyrinth’s northern end. Entering the bay, he’d gagged on hydrocarbon fumes. In a cove at the bay’s head, dead animals had floated in thick windrows, so coated they’d been unrecognizable. A few days later, his friend Rick Steiner and sea otter biologist Chuck Monet, from a small plane, had photographed orcas swimming through heavy slicks. They’d sent Craig an aerial photograph of fluke prints marking the whales’ paths on the sea surface. Each dark splotch in the sheen represented a whale’s inhalation of volatilized hydrocarbons.
Craig urged me to hurry to Homer to prepare for the field season. We’d be doing damage assessment, and I could continue to collect data on Chugach transients. Three field camps would be set up around the Sound. Two young biologists from San Juan Island would work from a camp on Point Nowell, at the north end of Knight Island Passage. A couple from British Columbia, former lighthouse keepers, would monitor Hinchinbrook Entrance, in the eastern Sound. As before, I’d work out of Whale Camp, first with my friend Matt, then with Mary.
“Plan to be at Whale Camp for four months,” Craig said. “Prepare yourself. It’s awful out there. It’s going to be a different kind of summer.”
Eva Saulitis has studied whales in Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and Alaska's Aleutian Islands for the past twenty-four years. In addition to her scientific publications, her essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in numerous national journals, including Orion, Crazyhorse, and Prairie Schooner. The author of the essay collection Leaving Resurrection and the poetry collection Many Ways to Say It, she teaches at Kenai Peninsula College, in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, and at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference. She lives in Homer, Alaska.