Exxon Valdez had only recently departed the Valdez Marine Terminal when the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of steering the vessel while he retired to his quarters. Having moved outside the usual shipping lanes to avoid small icebergs that had been sighted earlier, the ship struck the reef at 12:04am.
Described by John Muir as a ‘bright and spacious wonderland’, Prince William Sound is one of the world’s most remote locations. This made the clean-up operation both challenging and expensive. Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were later criticised for their response to the spill, which initially used chemical dispersants on the oil. They later attempted a mechanical clean-up but, despite their attempts to control the situation, the oil eventually spread over more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of water.
High pressure hot water that was sprayed over the beaches to displace the oil was later found to have destroyed organisms in the environment. These not only formed a vital part of the food chain but could also help to biodegrade the oil.
Millions of fish and hundreds of thousands of seabirds died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, while hundreds of otters and seals – as well as more than a dozen orcas – also perished as a result of the oil spill.
In total, only 10% of the lost oil was completely retrieved. This means that, even decades after the spill, hundreds of miles of Alaskan beaches are still polluted with crude oil lying just below the sandy surface.