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David Junka at the helm Oaklet, the 18-meter-long charter boat has sailed Alaskan waters longer than the period when the area was an American state. It’s high summer when he steps into Snug Harbor, a shallow curve in Knight’s Island coastline surrounded by towering cliffs and forests of cedar, spruce and hemlock. He steers toward the beach, aiming for a potato-shaped rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. He came here to take pictures.
For 33 years, someone has been coming here every summer to photograph this unassuming rock called Mean’s Rock. Taken together, these photos were the unintended side effects of America’s worst environmental disaster.
In 1989, Exxon Valdez A supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, dumping 40 million liters of dark black crude oil into Prince William Sound. The oil extended to the port of Snug, 80 kilometers away. Mearns Rock and all the marine life that inhabited it were “completely oiled,” said the rock’s eponymous work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hazardous Materials Team in the aftermath of the spill. says Alan Marnes.
During the cleanup, Exxon crews and contractors powered the oil washed off the shoreline into the sea where it was easy to contain. But the effort also robbed them of marine life.
“Our immediate concern was that cleaning would be worse than keeping the oil on,” says Mearns.
In the end, Exxon washed some areas of the beach and left others untreated. Mean’s Rock was still oiled. Over the next decade, Mearns and a team of NOAA chemists and biologists visited dozens of sites in the region to assess ecosystem recovery from oil exposure and power washing. Mearns began taking photographs of these research visits, using rocks like his rock as landmarks. After extensive research, Mearns and his NOAA colleague John Whitney secured funding to continue taking pictures each year through 2012. Since then, the project has been kept alive by the enthusiasm of volunteers like Janka, who now stop and consistently photograph eight of the original locations. when they are near. This dedicated group includes captains, scientists and members of the local Coast Guard.
When you put the 33 images of Mearns Rock side by side, it looks like your child’s school year collection of photos. One of them is a rock that boasts a thick top of rock. Another year it is buzzed, and the next summer the barnacles grow stubble. These photos show the dynamism of the intertidal zone where mussels, barnacles and seaweed claim real estate.
“There’s a lot you can learn from a simple picture,” says Scott Pegau, research manager at the Oil Spill Recovery Laboratory in Cordova, Alaska. During an aerial survey of herring this June, he plans to park his seaplane at Shelter Bay, 20 kilometers southwest of Snug Harbor, to photograph two refrigerator-sized boulders named Bert and Ernie. .
A series of decades-long photographs also help researchers understand the natural variability of the region, where the intertidal zone changes from rock to rock and bay to bay from year to year.
Mussels and barnacles returned to natural numbers within a few years of the spill, but not all species were so lucky. Some populations, including local orca herds, have yet to recover. To this day, when Janka receives guests, Oaklethe can stop at certain beaches and find pockets of toxic oil in spoonfuls of sand beneath the surface.
Janka knew more about the oil spill that night. Exxon Valdez Shipwreck. He transported journalists to the disaster area during the five days of the post-spill frenzy, and later met Mearns when NOAA hired him to transport scientists to the scene. Janka retired from charter operations this year, but plans to return to Mearns Rock for another photo shoot this summer.
of Exxon Valdez Proving to Janka the power of visual documentation. He says so many positive things happened as images of the leak spread around the world. The U.S. government enforced the Oil Spill Act, established a Citizens Council to oversee the oil industry in Prince William Sound, and legislated double-hull tankers. “I don’t think this would have happened without photography,” he says.
Mearns, who retired from NOAA in 2018 but continues to manage the photo collection, said he feels projects underway are less focused on the 1989 oil spill and more focused on the future. talk. Prince William Sound has temporarily recovered, but could be devastated again. Alaska’s waters are warming, new species are moving northward, and rising sea levels are pushing intertidal zones up to the coastline. The Citizens Council has just issued a warning that the Valdez Oil Terminal in Prince William Sound poses an “unacceptable safety risk”. No one knows what will happen in the next 33 years. The team is actively seeking volunteer photographers to continue the project.
“I will be 80 this summer. As long as his friends keep sending in pictures, he’ll keep making boulder albums, adding another at the end of the line while checking out the latest looks for each rock.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the person responsible for cleaning up the beach. Exxon hired crews to supply the oil washed off the shoreline, not NOAA.
This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.