The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Photo credit: Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

When we think of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, we remember slicks iridescent oil lapping against the rugged, pine-bordered beaches. We remember shorebirds and sea otters struggling helplessly to rid themselves of the toxic sludge. We remember the disbelief, the outrage, and the heroic effort it took to mitigate the damage.

But few remember what happened to the ship that lent its name to the disaster. Twenty-three years after the spill, the Exxon Valdez’s story is finally finished. A July court ruling decided that the ship will be dismantled for scrap metal in an Indian ship-breaking yard.

Prior to March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez was just one of many ships used to transport crude oil from Alaska’s North Slope to the lower 48 states. Owned by Exxon Shipping Company, now Exxon Mobil, the ship was bound for California with a cargo of more than 53 million gallons of oil.

The ship departed the port of Valdez, Alaska, late in the evening, when dark seas and numerous icebergs made navigation perilous. Tired from drinking on shore, the captian left a third mate in charge of the ship. Just after midnight, the Exxon Valdez collided with the nearby Bligh Reef.

More than 11 million gallons of crude oil poured into Prince William Sound in the following days, polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline. Only about one-fifth of the ship’s cargo seeped into the surrounding waters, but it was enough to kill a quarter-million seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, 300 harbour seals, and innumberable salmon and herring eggs. The Exxon Valdez spill reigned as the worst oil spill in national history until the equally infamous BP oil spill in 2010.

Workers struggle to clean oil off the beach of Big Smith Island. Photo credit: Jim Brickett / CC BY-ND 2.0

The disaster prompted the United State to ban single-hulled tankers, so the repaired and rechristened ship, now known as the Exxon Mediterranean, headed for European waters. In 2002 the Valdez relocated to Asia when the European Union enacted a similar single-hull ban. During the geographic shuffle, the ship was known as the SeaRiver Mediterranean, S/R Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean.

In 2007 a Hong Kong-based shipping company purchased the Valdez, converted her to an ore carrier, and rechristetned her Dong Fang Ocean. Three years later she crashed into a Maltese ship, the Aali, severly damaging both vessels.

In March of 2012 she was purchased for scrap, sold to a second scrap merchant, and renamed the Oriental Nicety. Headed for the dismantling at a ship-breaking yard in Alang, India, the Valdez was stopped by the Indian Supreme Court, which requested an environmental audit to check for toxins. No toxins were found, and so the Exxon’s Valdez’s journey is at an end. Over the next few months the ship will be dismantled for scrap metal at Alang.

The haunting legacies of the Exxon Valdez and Gulf oils spills remind us of the continued risk of future catastrophies. Shell Oil will soon start drilling in Alaska’s cold Beaufort Sea, only 15 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Just weeks ago Shell lost control of a drilling ship— the ironically named Noble Discoverer— while it was anchored in the harbor.

Oil still coats the beaches of Prince William Sound, disguised beneath layers of sand. Though the Exxon Valdez has run aground for good, the effects of the 1989 disaster will long outlast its namesake.

Related Links:
History Repeats Itself: A Look at a Few Other Notable Oil Spills
Oil Spill Photo Gallery:Louisiana Biologists Rescue an Oiled Pelican
How Many Birds Died in the BP Oil Spill?

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.