Alaskans have been photographing this Volkswagen Beetle-sized rock for 33 years

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David Janka is in charge of the moose, a 60-foot charter vessel that has traveled Alaskan waters for longer than the region has been in an American state. It’s the height of summer as you enter Snug Harbor, a shallow bend in the Knight Island shoreline, ringed by towering cliffs and stands of cedar, fir, and hemlock. He heads towards the beach, aiming for a potato-shaped rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. He is here to take the photo of him.

For 33 years, someone has traveled here every summer to photograph the unassuming rock, nicknamed Mearns Rock. Taken together, the photos are an unexpected consequence of one of America’s worst environmental disasters.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez Supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 40 million liters of thick black crude into Prince William Sound. The oil spread as far as Snug Harbor, 50 miles away. Mearns Rock and all of its marine inhabitants were “entirely painted over with oil,” says Alan Mearns, the rock’s eponym, who worked on the hazmat team for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after the leak.

During the cleanup, NOAA crews washed oil off shorelines into the ocean, where it was easier to corral. But the effort also wiped out marine life.

“Our concern immediately became: Is a cleaning worse than leaving the oil on?” Mearns says.

In the end, NOAA washed away some sections of the shoreline and left others untreated. Mearns Rock remained oiled. Over the next decade, Mearns and a team of chemists and biologists returned to dozens of sites in the region to assess ecosystem recovery from oil exposure and pressure washing. Mearns began photographing these research visits, using rocks like Mearns Rock as reference points. When the larger study was completed, Mearns and his NOAA colleague John Whitney secured funding to continue taking annual photos through 2012. Since then, the project has survived on the enthusiasm of volunteers like Janka, who now consistently photograph eight of the original sites, stopping at when they are close. The dedicated group has included captains, scientists and volunteers from the local coast guard.

Side by side, the 33 images of Mearns Rock look like a collection of a child’s yearly school photos. In one, the rock has a thick cover of rockweed. Another year, it is bare, followed by incipient barnacle growth the next summer. Together, the photos demonstrate the dynamism of the intertidal zone, where mussels, barnacles and algae clamor for real estate.

“We can learn a lot from a single image,” says Scott Pegau, research manager at the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska. This June, during an aerial survey of herring, he will dock his floatplane in Shelter Bay, 20 kilometers southwest of Snug Harbor, to photograph two refrigerator-sized rocks named Bert and Ernie.

The decades-long series of photographs is also helping researchers understand the region’s natural variability, where the intertidal zone changes from rock to rock, bay to bay, from year to year.

While mussels and barnacles recovered to their natural numbers within a few years of the spill, not all species were so lucky. Several populations have yet to recover, including a local pod of killer whales. Until today, when Janka has guests at the mooseYou can stop at certain beaches and find pockets of toxic oil with just a tablespoon of sand below the surface.

Janka has been intimately familiar with the oil spill since the night of Exxon Valdez shipwreck. He took journalists to the disaster zone for the five hectic days after the spill, and met Mearns when NOAA later hired him to shuttle scientists to their sites. Although he checked out of the rental this year, Janka plans to return to Mearns Rock for another photo this summer.

He Exxon Valdez demonstrated to Janka the power of visual documentation. So many positive things happened because the images of the spill spread around the world, he says. The US government implemented oil spill legislation, formed citizens’ councils to oversee the Prince William Sound oil industry, and legislated double-hull tankers. “I don’t think that would have happened if there were no photographs,” she says.

The ongoing project feels less attached to the 1989 oil spill and more focused on the future, says Mearns, who retired from NOAA in 2018 but continues to manage the photo collection. Prince William Sound has tentatively recovered, but could be devastated again. Alaskan waters are warming, new species are moving north, and rising sea levels are pushing the intertidal zone inshore. A citizens’ council just flagged the Valdez oil terminal in Prince William Sound as an “unacceptable security risk.” Who knows what the next 33 years will bring? The team is actively looking for volunteer photographers to keep the project on track.

“I am turning 80 this summer. I keep thinking, well, maybe I should back off. But I can not. It’s fun,” says Mearns. As long as his friends keep sending photos, he’ll keep building the rock albums, reviewing each rock’s latest look as he adds another photo to the end of the line.