Published: January 1990

Alaska Oil Spill

Valdez Spill Cleanup

Can the Wilderness Heal?

When the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground last March 24, spewing 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, some feared that the pristine waters would never recover. Bryan Hodgson assesses the worst tanker spill in U.S. history and a six-month, billion-dollar cleanup effort.

By Bryan Hodgson, National Geographic Senior Writer
Photograph by Natalie Fobes

This article was published in the January 1990 National Geographic. We've retained the originally used names and spellings here.

In the beginning, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez gutted herself on Bligh Reef and vomited 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's exquisite Prince William Sound, it seemed truly like the ending of a world. Seabirds were dying by the thousands in the muck. Vast stocks of salmon and herring and halibut would perish next, naturalists feared, and with them an industry and a way of life. On the eighth day of the disaster I walked shorelines that glittered black as far as I could see. A pitiful handful of cleanup vessels confronted the largest tanker spill in United States history. What hope could there possibly be?

Five months later I walked those shores again. Incredibly I found pink salmon spawning in a stream that had been choked with oil, and I smelled fresh seaweed on a pebble beach where native bacteria had eaten much of the oil away.

Clearly the world had not ended.

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