David Janka is the head of the starican 18-meter charter boat that has traveled Alaska‘s waters longer than the region has been a US state. It’s the height of summer as it enters Snug Harbor, a shallow curve on a shoreline on Knight Island surrounded by towering cliffs and stands of cedar, spruce and hemlock. He heads for the beach, aiming for a potato-shaped rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. He is there to take his picture.
For 33 years, someone has been going there every summer to photograph the unassuming rock, nicknamed Mearns Rock. Collectively, the photos are an unintended consequence of one of America’s worst environmental disasters.
In 1989, the Exxon-Valdez The supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 40 million liters of thick black crude into Prince William Sound. The oil spilled as far as Snug Harbor, 80 kilometers away. Mearns Rock and all of its marine inhabitants were “totally painted in oil,” says Alan Mearns, the rock’s namesake, who worked on the hazardous materials team for the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). States following the spill.
During the cleanup, Exxon crews washed the oil off shore and into the ocean, where it was easier to cash in. But the effort also snatched marine life.
“Our concern immediately became, ‘Is cleaning going to be worse than leaving the oil on?’ says Mearns.
In the end, Exxon washed some sections of the coast and left others untreated. Mearns Rock remained oiled. Over the next decade, Mearns and a team of chemists and biologists returned to dozens of sites in the region to assess ecosystem recovery after oil exposure and pressure washing. Mearns began photographing these research tours, using boulders like Mearns Rock as landmarks. Upon completion of the larger study, Mearns and NOAA colleague John Whitney secured funding to continue taking annual photos until 2012. Since then, the project has survived thanks to the enthusiasm of volunteers like Janka, who now routinely photograph eight of the original sites, stopping in when nearby. The dedicated group included skippers, scientists and local coast guard volunteers.
Side by side, the 33 images of Mearns Rock look like a collection of a child’s yearly school photos. In one, the rock sports a thick layer of fucus. Another year it’s bare, followed by a ruffled growth of barnacles the following summer. Together, the photos demonstrate the vibrancy of the intertidal zone, where mussels, barnacles, and algae claim real estate.
“We can learn a lot from a single image,” says Scott Pegau, research director at the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska. In June, during an aerial herring survey, he will dock his seaplane at Shelter Bay, 20 kilometers southwest of Snug Harbour, to photograph two refrigerator-sized rocks named Bert and Ernie.
The decades-long photo series also helps researchers understand the region’s natural variability, where the intertidal zone changes from rock to rock, bay to bay, from year to year.
While mussels and barnacles returned to their natural numbers a few years after the spill, not all species were so lucky. Several populations have still not recovered, including a pod of local killer whales. To this day, when Janka has guests on the stariche may stop at some beaches and find pockets of toxic oil just a spoonful of sand below the surface.
Janka has known the oil spill intimately since the night of Exxon-Valdez destroy. He ferried journalists around the disaster area for the frantic five days following the spill, and he met Mearns when NOAA later hired him to ferry scientists to their sites. Although he retired from chartering this year, Janka plans to return to Mearns Rock to take another photo this summer.
THE Exxon-Valdez proved to Janka the power of visual documentation. So many positive things happened because the images of the spill went around the world, he says. The US government has implemented oil spill legislation, formed citizens’ councils to oversee Prince William Sound’s oil industry, and legislated double-hull tankers. “I don’t think that would have happened if there hadn’t been photographs,” he says.
The current project seems less attached to the 1989 oil spill and more forward-looking, says Mearns, who retired from NOAA in 2018 but continues to manage the photo collection. Prince William Sound made an attempt to recover but could be devastated again. Alaskan waters are warming, new species are moving north, and rising seas are pushing the intertidal zone toward the shore. Fair citizen advice reported Valdez Oil Terminal in Prince William Sound as an “unacceptable security risk”. Who knows what the next 33 years will bring? The team is actively seeking volunteer photographers to keep the project going.
“I’ll be 80 this summer. I keep thinking, well, maybe I should back off. But I can’t. It’s fun,” Mearns says. photos, it will continue to build the rock albums, checking each rock’s latest look while adding another photo to the end of the line.