The first environmental disaster that I remember occurred just about a week after my tenth birthday. On 28 January 1969 an oil well off Santa Barbara, California blew out and caused the Santa Barbara oil spill. Even at age 10, like the rest of the country I was shocked by the television news reports on the great harm inflicted on the natural communities there.
Twenty years to the day after that, on 28 January 1989, the Argentine naval ship Bahia Paraiso ran aground just off Palmer Station and caused the first and still only major oil spill in Antarctica. I was a graduate student nearing completion of my Ph.D. work in marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Three years prior to that, I had made my first and, at that time, only trip to Antarctica as part of the krill project that Maggie worked for. My mentor at UCSB was Michael Neushul. Mike had been on faculty at UCSB at the time of the Santa Barbara spill and was very involved in the evaluation of its impacts. In addition, in 1958 he had become the first marine biologist to scuba dive in Antarctica and publish reports of the benthic (sea bottom) marine communities.
In fact, relative to most places in the world, the Marine Science Institute at UCSB had a wealth of people with experience in antarctic marine biology and/or in oil spill impacts on marine communities. When the NSF put together a "rapid response team" to quickly deploy to Palmer and assess the damage of the oil to the marine communities, I was part of a five person team from UCSB charged with studying the spill impacts on benthic communities. About a month after the spill, I was on my way to Palmer.
The Bahia was, by all accounts I’ve heard, a magnificent ship and a pride of the Argentine Navy. She was over 400 feet. long, carried two $10 million Sea King helicopters and a crew of several hundred sailors. She also carried over 100 tourists. Her naval role on that fateful cruise was to resupply an Argentine antarctic station with food and fuel but to help cover the large costs of antarctic operations, on many cruises she also carried tourists.
If you were to look out from Palmer and wanted to go to the west by ship, the obvious looking passage would be to head more or less directly west through a large gap between Litchfield and DeLaca Islands. But if you had the navigation charts that the United States and many other countries used at the time (which I believe for that area were based on surveys originally done by the British), you would have seen that passage marked with the warning "Dangerous ledges and pinnacles." But I have been told that the Argentine charts did not show that.
The ship had come into or out of the station that way once or twice before. Station personnel, including the antarctic science head at NSF, Ted DeLaca, had urged the Captain of the Bahia not to use that route. But he chose to ignore them. And he and many, many others paid a great price for his recklessness. The Bahia Paraiso hit one of those ledges or pinnacles just north of DeLaca Island. The island had been named for Ted DeLaca years before as he had been one of the earlier scientists to spend an entire year at Palmer.
The story at the time was that several water tight doors below the water line that should have been closed while the ship was underway were in fact open. So, when the hull was breached the water flowed through the hull to the engine rooms and disabled the engines. With them went the power for the pumps that might have keep enough water out for the ship to stay afloat. I do not know if that "story" is true or not. But I do know that the ship was doomed.
Once the ship lost power, her fate was sealed and she was abandoned shortly after. Station personnel mobilized rapidly. The tourists and many of the sailors boarded covered life rafts that were set adrift from the ship. Palmer personnel went out in zodiacs to tow them into the station. Remember that Palmer has a peak population of 44 or so. It feels crowded with much over 35. By the end of that afternoon, the station had over 400 shipwrecked visitors.
Fortunately for the tourists, there were a number of other tour ships in the area. Between them they had room for all the tourists and came directly to Palmer to pick them up. By that night, all the tourists had been picked up. But that still left over 300 Argentine sailors. They left more slowly, many being there for several days. They slept all over the station and in covered life rafts that had been hauled out of the water and onto land around station.
The ship remained where she’d gone aground for three days, rocking back and forth on the rock that holed her. But then she broke free, drifted around to the southeast side of DeLaca Island, rolled over, and sank. Only part of her port side was visible above water when I first saw her. Recall that the ship’s primary mission was to resupply and refuel an Argentine station. She had not been there yet and was carrying over 250,000 gallons of fuel, most of it for that station. A majority of the fuel was arctic grade diesel but there was also gasoline and jet fuel. She began spilling fuel very quickly after the hull was breached and continues leaking it until this day.
The short term devastation was pronounced. At its peak, the slick was over 100 square kilometers (which is about 39 square miles). Many penguins and other sea birds in the vicinity of the spill were killed and the intertidal communities along the shore were poisoned. Because of the cold, the arctic grade diesel fuel used in polar regions is a bit lighter than most. Compared to crude oil that spilled in Santa Barbara (or in the famous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska which happened not long after the Bahia Paraiso spill), the arctic diesel fuel is much more toxic but evaporates much quicker without leaving the tar along the shore like a crude oil spill.
By the time our group got to Palmer, most of the oil had evaporated or been skimmed by an oil recovery boat that NSF flew down very rapidly. The damage to the birds and intertidal was done. Fortunately, the intertidal organisms are mostly short lived and "weedy." They are often scoured off by ice and naturally replaced quickly. So by the time we got there and the intertidal oil was gone, most (but not all) of the intertidal communities on the road to recovery. And the benthic communities below the oil slicked surface had sustained virtually no damage at all.
Only part of the total oil carried from the ship was released at the time of the wreck (the estimate was about 150,000 gallons). More continued to leak out when we were there. And even though the vast majority of the oil that was left trapped in the ship was pumped out in a special salvage operation a year or two after the ship went down, oil continues to leak from her today. Particularly on days when the ocean is calm, a light sheen of oil can coat part of the area above the wreck. We collect on or beside the wreck a lot and it is never any fun coming up in a slick.
The wreck itself has changed a lot, both what you see above water and below. Over the years she has rolled over so that she is pretty much deck side down instead of lying on her side. The superstructure has been crushed. I recall swimming through her bridge and helicopter decks (complete with the big helicopters) that first year. Those are all crushed now. But, because the ship casts heavy shadows where she overhangs the bottom, we are able to collect algae in relatively shallow water (40-60 feet) that other places we only find in deep water (100+ feet) if at all. She also provided space for some of the more weedy animal species that are still there in greater abundance than in more established, natural communities in the area.
So, the wreck of the Bahia Paraiso has been a valuable collection spot. I hope that we never get another one like it...