Most of Prince William Sound’s animal populations will someday recover from the lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. One, however, will not: a community of killer whales unlike any other in the world.
“It’s a separate population. Their genetics, their acoustics, are different from any other killer whales that we see in the north Pacific,” said Craig Matkin, director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, who has studied the region’s whales for three decades.
Known to researchers as the AT1 pod, the whales’ home range fell within the 11,000 square miles of crude oil dumped by the ship when it ran aground on March 24, 1989. Nine of the pod’s 22 whales subsequently died, likely from oil ingestion — a blow from which the group, already struggling to cope with pollution and declining populations of the seals on which they rely for food, never recovered.
“It was the last nail in the coffin,” said Matkin.