When a female sea otter named Homer was born near the cool, clean waters along Alaska's Prince William Sound, her life must have seemed destined to play out much as it had for countless generations before her. But that all changed one fateful day in the early spring of 1989, and things would never be the same for her, or anything else, again.
On May 29 of that year, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef just offshore, spilling some 10 million gallons of oil into the surrounding aquatic ecosystem -- leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Both immediately, and in the days that followed the spill, wildlife died by the thousands. A quarter-million seabirds would ultimately perish in the resulting sludge, along with hundreds of eagles, seals, and other marine species.
Included in that devastating death toll were at least 2,800 sea otters. Homer, named after the town where she was found, was among just three dozen oil slicked sea otters rescued from the poisoned waters, surviving only thanks to the tireless effort of conservationists and volunteers. Afterwards, the displaced otters were sent to zoos across the country.
In the decades that followed, as a resident of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington state, Homer and the others would be touted as living reminders of both humanity's capacity for destruction, and its power to save -- educating visitors about the importance of respecting nature and her inhabitants from pollutants.
At age 25, the oldest recorded age for her species, Homer outlived all the other Exxon Valdez survivors. Yesterday, she passed away from natural causes -- a death very few of her kin were afforded the opportunity to experience.
"It's pretty monumental that she's the last Exxon Valdez oil spill survivor in U.S. zoos and aquariums,” says Karen Wolf, head veterinarian at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. "She was an amazing animal. She taught a lot of people about conservation."
Sadly, though Homer takes with her the memory of that experience in 1989, the harmful effects of the Exxon Valdez spill have yet to fade. There is believed to still be around 23,000 US gallons of crude oil remaining in the water and sand surrounding Prince William Sounds, likely to linger for decades to come.