The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 is regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters caused by humans. Up until the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which occurred in 2010, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest ever (in terms of the volume of oil released) in US waters. While there are no precise figures, it is believed that between one quarter to three quarters of a million barrels (41,000 to 119,000 cubic meters) of crude oil were released in the Exxon Valdez spill. Many organizations, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accept estimates on the lower end of the spectrum, whereas other groups, like Defenders of Wildlife, insist that the volume of oil released was at the opposite end of the spectrum. At the time of the oil spill, Exxon Valdez was carrying approximately 1.3 million barrels (210,000 cubic meters) of oil, according to official reports, so up to a little over half of the ship’s vast supply of oil may have been released into the wild. Below you will find some key facts about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its consequences.

[NOTE: Why is there this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship, on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]

Currently known as “Oriental Nicety,” Exxon Valdez is an oil tanker that has had several different names, including Exxon Mediterranean, SeaRiver Mediterranean, S/R Mediterranean, Mediterranean, and Dong Fang Ocean. The ship was delivered to Exxon in 1986, so it was relatively new when the oil spill occurred. Built by National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego, Exxon Valdez is a large vessel, with a length of 987 feet, a width of 166 feet, and a depth of 88 feet (301 meters, 50 meters, and 26 meters, respectively). The ship can hold up to 1.48 million barrels of oil (235,000 cubic meters), making it nearly full when the oil spill occurred.

The oil spill itself occurred on March 24, 1989. The ship was in the Prince William Sound of the Gulf of Alaska when it ran aground, hitting Bligh Reef, which tore through the vessel’s tanks. A number of factors contributed to the accident. The crew was insufficiently rested, which potentially explains why the third mate of the ship didn’t properly manuever the vessel, and the radar wasn’t working. Had the radar been working, it would have warned the third mate of the approaching reef. At the time of the collision with the reef, the captain of the ship was sleeping. (Interestingly, this captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was hired by his alma mater, SUNY Maritime College, as a teacher the year after the accident.)

Besides the sheer amount of oil that was released – it eventually spread to cover 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) of coastline and 11,000 square miles (28,000 square kilometers) of ocean – the accident was particularly bad because of where it occurred. Prince William Sound is a remote location, accessible only by boat or aircraft, and this made the response to the spill extremely difficult. Oil spills are notoriously hard to clean up, and this was made worse by the location of the spill. Moreover, the region where the spill occurred is the habitat of various animals, including seals, sea otters, salmon, and a number of seabirds. Hundreds of thousands of animals (the vast majority of which were seabirds) died as a result of the spill.

The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill were extremely wide-ranging, impacting numerous industries and countless lives. As such, it is impossible to fully explain the oil spill and its consequences in a mere article, but the above covers many of the major aspects of the spill itself and gestures at the destruction it caused.

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