Since preparing this review, there has been a significant diesel oil spill in waters adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula. In late January 1989, the Argentinian vessel Bahia Paraíso sank after grounding on shoals off southwestern Anvers Island, a short distance from Palmer Station (U.S.A.). Soon after, in February, the Peruvian vessel Humbolt was refloated after running aground off King George Island some 400 km to the north.
The Bahia Paraiso was carrying almost one million litres of diesel as well as other petroleum products. Although measures to contain the spilling oil were prompt, a slick spread some distance from the wrecked vessel. It is the considered opinion of several commentators that this spill has threatened the viability of some biological research projects at Palmer Station. Preliminary reports mentioned considerable krill mortality in the vicinity, and later observations noted detrimental impact on Skuas, Chinstrap and Adélie Penguins, and Blue-eyed Shags. There was oil-fouling and deaths amongst the penguins and evidence of internal haemorrhaging in Blue-eyed Shags. There was also evidence that the season's offspring of 54 local pairs of breeding Skuas had been lost.
The Bahia Paraiso spill was a "minor" incident, luckily involving diesel, which although highly toxic, evaporated quickly and did not form mousse.
An event of more momentous significance was the March 1989 spill of over 35 million litres of crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is the first large spill to occur in a relatively enclosed body of cold water. The area is one of ecological richness and diversity and there is wide agreement that this is an environmental disaster of catastrophic proportions. Clean-up operations have been hampered by the physical environment, climate and logistics, and an economically important fishery has been threatened. The wildlife of the area has sustained damage, the magnitude of which is difficult to assess — particularly at risk are sea lions, otters, migratory birds and carrion feeders such as Bald Eagles and bears. While wave action may clean exposed sites of oil, sheltered spots may remain contaminated for years.
From the Bahia Paraiso and Exxon Valdez incidents, one minor and the other catastrophic, we will learn much. There are both warnings and lessons that must be heeded by all who contemplate and/or authorize expansion of shipping traffic or fisheries activity, as well as hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in Antarctic waters. This environment is an unforgiving one and complacency is an attribute of all mankind. The Exxon Valdez incident suggests that we should take no risks with Antarctica.
Was this article helpful?