Thirty years ago this month, the currents delivered spilled oil from the Exxon Valdez to the Kodiak-Katmai area. I was the DEC District Engineer over Anchorage, western Alaska, including the Kodiak office.  I relocated to Kodiak for shoreline surveillance. We flew a Bell 206 chopper right off the deck, covering all the islands in the Kodiak area & the Katmai coast. Some memories do not fade ….

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We were trained by international expert for oil-spill shoreline surveys, Erich Gundlach. The chopper crew consisted of 2 DEC shoreline surveyors, plus Erich or a photographer; National Geographic photographer Natalie Fobes & Anchorage Daily News photographer Marion Stirrup captured the tragedy on film.

Natalie Fobes joined us on many surveillance flights. She wore a crash helmet aboard the chopper- this became a magnet for jokes. Natalie recalled a downdraft that we could not overcome on a flight; we had to turn around. Pilot Jay pointed out the checkerboard pattern over Shelikof Strait- wave patterns at 90 degrees to each other; we shuddered at the thought of engine failure. We hooked the landing gear on a piece of driftwood one day, but Jay slowly put us down without mishap.

stevemaxschwennenataliefobesjay-r.jpgMyself, Max Schwenne, Natalie Fobes & Chopper Pilot Jay

It was an exciting adventure flying low-level in this wild country. The excitement was tempered by apprehension & foreboding of what we would discover. We investigated a dead whale on Tugidak Island. It was not apparent that the whale had died from the spilled oil. Placer miners would later report thousands of oiled dead birds on the small island.


A dead eagle was collected as a possible oil spill victim. Ingestion of oiled prey was a possible source. Reaching these remote locations required fueling up at times. We would land at a tender in Kitoi Bay for fuel. Jay would bring a current newspaper to the news-hungry workers; these were the days before the internet. Drums of fuel were stashed at select locations on the Katmai coast- this would extend our range.

oilspill_al103864-FromNaataliePhoto by Natalie Fobes

A sow Kodiak Brown Bear & 4 cubs were spotted at Jute Bay, possible oil stains evident in their hides.


After flying the perimeters of Kodiak, Afognak, Shuyak, & associated islands, we still had not made it to the Barren Islands. On April 29 the weather cleared, allowing flight to the Amatuli Islands. Upon landing a deathly silence greeted us. We discovered the 1st dead Murres in what would soon be tens of thousands. Fifty to sixty thousand Murres were returning to begin nesting.

Max-MurresMy DEC Crew Partner Max Schwenne, with Oiled Murres

Kodiak-Owen-oi-spill-cropBeach Transect Survey on East Amatuli Island. (Photo by Marion Stirrup)

Having spoken with many people over the years involved in the Exxon Valdez disaster, I posed the question, what could have been done differently? A recurrent answer ensued. The pooled oil at the site of the spill lay thick & quiescent for a couple days. It could possibly have been torched & set ablaze. It would have been a tremendous fire, with much smoke, but would have removed most of the oil from the water column.

Some memories do not fade …. like the pall over Amatuli.

I still travel to Kodiak for environmental jobs- 30 years later I got together with Marion Stirrup (Owen) for coffee.

Marion-Steve-Crop30-Year Reunion; Steve & Marion (

2 thoughts on “PALL OVER AMATULI

  1. Great journalism – sad story… We will never forget as Peter flew over it on the way home for our March 31 wedding. Reminds me of Charles Wohlforth’s excellent book The Fate of Nature. ps you were such a cutie!


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