How Rebecca's life is changed by a disaster near her home in Alaska.
Jamie Preston’s hands were on my breasts the first time Nova found me.
I’d promised Jamie we could go to third base after his seventeenth birthday party and the only really private place in Cordova was out in the Sound with the cool, salty, night air thick in our lungs, miles of water rolling off in every direction and an ocean of stars scattered overhead.
The bubbly headiness of my first beer fueled my courage as Jamie and I snuck down to the deserted harbor and out along the narrow docks to the last slip. That’s where Daddy kept the wooden dinghy he used when he wasn’t out on the larger fishing boat. If he or my brother Daniel knew what I was planning they would kill me.
A thin mist rolled over the water’s surface as Jamie steered the little boat out of the harbor and into Orca Inlet where he turned us north-east, following the Ferry route into the Sound. From my place on the prow I drank in the evergreen coated hills, the orangey-red sky and the tangy sea-spray on my tongue and face. I sat like that forever, until the glassy water reflected hazy blue moonlight. The coastline of Hawkins Island came and went from view as a gauzy curtain of clouds slid across the full moon, hiding the only source of light.
“Do you think we’re far enough?” Jamie asked as he slowed the boat to a crawl.
In front of us, off in the distance, two large oil-tankers slept like silent giants. Since Daddy had wrecked his back laying the Alaska Pipeline back in seventy-six, he’d been complaining about that ‘god-damned-oil’ being the death of us all. They were the worst years of his life, he’d said, and now he had to be reminded of it every day as the tankers cut a path through his fishing grounds.
“Yeah, no one from town’s going to be out here this late,” I said.
Prince William Sound was the most beautiful place on the planet. Having never left Cordova I didn’t have much to substantiate my claim, but in my heart I knew there could be nowhere else that stunned me to silence the way this place did everyday. It was a landscape of dreams.
The dinghy jostled as Jamie crawled from the stern and tugged me down to cuddle in the thick sleeping-bags he had thoughtfully procured for this momentous occasion. The water lapping at the side of the gently rocking boat and our heavy breaths were the only sounds in the black silence around us. But just as we were rounding second base and coming up hard on third, I heard something else.
The boat rocked on a small wave and I caught the sound of sad mewling. I froze, my ears tuned to the silence as Jamie continued his focused attentions. And then there it was again, a soft purr followed by the sound of high pressured air shooting out of the water; a geyser of steamy exhaled breath and the soft lapping of another wave against the hull.
“Becca, you smell so good.”
“Shut up, Jamie!” I whispered harshly, shoving him hard enough to break his concentration. “Listen.”
Another series of soft whines, a buzzing hum I felt through the bottom of the wooden boat and more breathy blasts of air.
“Holy shit!” Jamie leaned up on his arms to peek over the side then scrambled to sit up. “You have to see this, Rebecca.”
I used his proffered hand to rise, and as I tentatively peered above the edge of the boat, another creature rose out of the black ocean to look back at me.
I’d grown up with Orcas in my backyard. As the daughter of a salmon fisherman I’d heard endless stories of Killer Whales but this was the closest I had ever been to one.
Less than fifteen feet away, her majestic, curved head rose straight up out of the water and my heart clenched as our gazes met. With that piercing look, I felt as though she read every desire in my soul. Glossy, black skin glowed in the moonlight as she bobbed up then smoothly slid under the water with no more than a small ripple.
Still holding my breath, I leaned over the side of the boat just as she swam under. Only the starburst of white on her black back made her visible, like a shooting star darting below us instead of above. But before I had time to make a wish, she was gone.
The second time I saw her was from the bow of Daddy’s boat as we headed through the Sound to pick up supplies in Valdez.
The September day was frigid, signaling the end of the fishing season. Jagged mountains towered around us, shooting toward the grey skies until they disappeared into the clouds. Hundreds of sea lions sprawled across the rocky outcroppings around Bligh Island. The hairs on my arm rose as a Bald Eagle’s shrill screech filled the air. It swooped down to the water and rose gracefully with its next meal clenched in its claws.
Leaning over the side of the boat, I huddled into my goose-down parka and watched the waves roll out around our path. Without warning, an Orca’s slick, fluid body exploded from the water beside the boat, breaching and falling with a loud slap against the surface of the ocean. Instantly I recognized the odd starburst saddle patch and the almost cocky curve of her dorsal as she breached again, higher and more elaborate in her elegance.
“Show off!” I yelled into the spray, laughing at her antics as she burst from the water off the starboard side of the boat. In and out she dove and rose through the waves, following us effortlessly as she surfed in our wake.
I pushed my blowing hair back from my face and leaned further over the rail, wishing I could join her joyous romp. She was stunning. And then on her right, like an arrow pointing to the azure sky, another towering dorsal rose from the waves. His majestic fin broke the surface, gliding smoothly - calmly - alongside the bounding female.
“Her name is Nova,” Daddy said as he leaned beside me. “And his name is Jet. Hardly ever leaves her side.”
“Is that her mate?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Her older brother.”
True to his name, Jet outpaced the boat and Nova with ease. She followed into the navy depths and as fast as she had exploded into my day, she was gone. Again.
“And you’re a coward!” I yelled back to my twin brother Daniel as I ran along the pebbled beach.
“Dude, that water is like five degrees.” He followed close on my heels as I ran toward the pier.
It was summer in Alaska and one had to take advantage of days above freezing.
“We’re wearing wetsuits, you wimp!” I ran toward the end of the long, old pier with no intention of stopping once I got to the edge.
I leapt off the end, throwing my arms wide like an eagle’s wings, hoping to glide away on the wind. But instead I plummeted into the icy water with a scream of delight. Arctic fingers crept along my body as my wetsuit filled. Holding my breath I allowed myself to sink, relishing the silence of a still ocean pressed against my eardrums.
I felt the Morse-code clicking against my back before I heard the chirps and squeaks. Nova glided by me, twisting and rubbing her side against the pebbles on the ocean floor. With a strong kick, I surfaced just as she flipped her tail out of the water, slapping the surface and splashing me in the process.
“Rebecca! Get the hell out of there!” Daniel yelled but I ignored his urgent voice as I treaded water, spinning to watch Nova as she darted back and forth. In the distance Jet’s regal fin coasted by, waiting patiently as his sister played.
My arms and legs stopped pumping as I sank back down into Nova’s watery world. A flick of her powerful tail brought her toward me, but before I could run my hand along her glossy skin, she swam past. Again and again we played that game but each time she spun away, teasing me with her shy retreat.
And with each approach, I felt our spirits entwining, our fates merging, our destinies and past lives and future lives all coming together in a single, shared heartbeat.
Finally, when my muscles burned with exhaustion, I returned to the shore and my waiting brother’s murderous look.
“That was stupid, Becca. What if you got hurt?”
Without a second thought, I spoke a truth I knew in my heart. “She won’t hurt me.”
I turned to glance at the water just as Jet ushered Nova out of the cove.
Over the next year Nova and I crossed paths often. Each time on the Sound I expected her to burst from the waves to greet me, and often she did. Our fates were aligned somehow and seeing her grew to an obsession barely tolerated by Daddy and Daniel. I insisted on joining their weeklong fishing runs and skipped school regularly to volunteer on research vessels leaving Cordova.
I learned more about Prince William Sound on those surreptitious trips than I ever would in Geography class, but Daddy never bought that argument. Nevertheless, I continued my hands-on learning through most of the winter.
“Becca, wake up.” Rough hands shook my shoulder and I rolled toward the blue-grey dawn filtering into my room.
“What?” I moaned, trying my hardest not to wake up. An icy draft chilled my face as Daniel stepped onto the balcony. “What are you doing?” I yelled as the door hung open.
After receiving no response I dove from the bed into my robe and shuffled to the door in bunny slippers. The small balcony overlooked Orca Inlet. Daniel stood at the edge, his hands clenched around the thick wooden rail. His stillness stopped my heart.
“Daniel? What’s wrong?” My voice came out as thin as the icy air in my lungs.
“Listen,” he whispered.
It was then I noticed the thick, muddy silence coating the Inlet. The uncomfortable calm when you convince yourself everything is alright only to later realize that in that stillness, the tension had been gathering and brewing, ready to strike like lightning and set fire to your life.
“What’s going on?” I whispered, trying not to disturb the eerily still morning.
He shook his head then pointed into the cove as black dorsal fins emerged from the still water. From our distance I couldn’t tell if Nova swam among them but the pod’s silent, hasty dash through the Inlet added to my anxiety.
“Let’s go find Dad,” he suggested, pulling me into the house.
That tranquil morning changed the course of countless lives. All because the night before, a drunk had let his exhausted third-mate control fifty-three million gallons of the deadliest weapon the inhabitants of the Sound never saw coming.
“Come on Becca, we can fit one more person.” Daniel held out his hand to help me into the small seaplane floating alongside the bobbing pier.
I allowed him to hoist me into the cramped, mildewy interior. He threw his knapsack onto the floor, making room on the seat across the aisle and I took it gladly, buckling in as the plane zipped across the water and into the air.
Daddy said there was some buzz on the radios last night and a couple of his guys heard there was oil escaping a tanker hung up on the reef. This morning he and a bunch of the other fishing operations were getting together to volunteer their boats to help with the cleanup.
In the meantime, Daniel and I were hitching a plane ride with a family friend to do some reconnaissance.
As the plane tilted and coasted around the bend of the peninsula I slid toward the edge of my plastic seat. Clutching the cold, metal handle, I pulled myself back on and pressed my face against the window.
The gasp of disbelief left all our lips at the same moment, and then no one had the ability to breath for a full minute.
Sitting at the edge of the reef, the silent, deadly giant looked peaceful as it spilled its gallons of grief into our lives. The oil slick snaked its way out from the edge of the tanker for about five miles and there was no one doing anything about it.
“Daddy said it’s called the Exxon Valdez.” I was the first to talk.
As we turned, we passed close to the island where a mamma bear and her cubs played along the shore, still lost in their innocence. The other ten people on board the sea plane said nothing – their innocence already lost as we watched the black stain of death pour from the side of the ship.
“Rebecca, quick! There’s another one, grab the net fast before she dives!”
I ran to the prow of the ship, brandishing the long net like a flag. I thrust the head of the net into the water and scooped toward the terrified, oil-stained bird as she paddled furiously in the thick liquid. But just as I would have grabbed her slick, oily body, she dove into the dense liquid. We waited for her to surface, but like those we had seen before, the only evidence of her dive were the bubbles of air that rose in the oil when she found the water too thick to maneuver and too dense to resurface. Another one lost.
I had spent the past week on the deck of the Sound Savior, Cordova. I had thought the name of the research vessel cute during my illicit volunteer trips but now it was just a sad irony. Nothing we could do would save the Sound.
Daddy and the other fishermen were turned away by Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline people when they tried to help, so instead they went on their own to try to save the salmon hatcheries out by Sawmill Bay. If those hatcheries went, so did all the salmon and so did most of Cordova’s livelihood.
Daniel went up to Valdez to work in one of the rescue centers. We’ve been sending the animals we find up there but most of them don’t make it.
Yesterday we pulled three otters from the water - a mamma with her two oil-slicked babies on her stomach. We bathed them with dish soap and warm water as they mewled. They had both been blinded by the oil. The mamma cried for her cubs as we tended to them but before we could warm her up she slipped into a coma and died of hypothermia. Their oiled fur no longer provided any insulation from the frigid water and the mother had slowly frozen to death as she kept her babies warm on her stomach. Another one lost.
As we coasted by another black, oil-slicked beach we watched the crew of our sister ship try to catch an otter on shore. The otter rolled back and forth in the snow, wriggling and writing as two men slowly approached it from either side.
“Why is she wiggling around so much?” I asked, thinking maybe the oil was causing the animals to have seizures.
“She’s trying to get the oil off her fur.”
A small sob stuck in my throat as I imagined the countless animals that would never recover. The birds that drowned in the black mire, the seals that died alone and scared after ingesting carcinogen laced fish. One barrel of oil can kill a million salmon, and one salmon alone is worth more than a barrel of oil.
My heaven was now an oil-covered, foul-smelling hell.
And then I heard Daddy’s ominous words in my head – “That god-damned-oil will be the death of us all.”
Over the next few months, Daniel and I spent every moment helping the wildlife recovery effort but it was useless. We had small victories, but only nature could determine how well our home would recover.
Depression was a regular part of everyday life. That and oil. Oil everywhere - on the beaches, in our fish, on our boats, in the air. One day I found a patch of tar tangled in my hair. We couldn’t escape it. We had more oil and depression than we knew what to do with.
One evening late in the summer, Daniel convinced me to go out to our beach. For that entire spring and most of summer I avoided our pebbled cove. I didn’t want to see the destruction. I wanted it to remain clean and new and fresh-smelling and I knew the minute I saw it in its true form, a part of me would die. But he convinced me it was time to face it.
As we tied the dinghy up to the long dock everything looked surprisingly intact. I could see black patches on the rocks, but you couldn’t go anywhere in the Sound without finding some residue. It was only as we followed the pier down onto the beach that I truly saw the destruction.
This had been one of the beaches they water blasted. I felt the tears streaming down my face as we stepped onto the shore. Puddles of oil had formed between the pebbles and coated my shoes instantly.
The cleaning crew had used high-pressured hot water to wash the oil from the beach and back into the water. But in their wake they had left graffiti - “Peter waz here” and “John loves Ivy” scratched into the centuries old boulders.
Cigarette butts and soda cans littered the edge of the tree line. Toilet paper and wrappers fluttered among the tall grass – or what was left of the grass. The high-pressured steam had blasted away most of the vegetation on the beach.
The cleanup method was designed to rid the beach of all traces of oil, but what they failed to realize was hot water also rid the beach of all traces of life.
Along the shore the colonies of barnacles were all black and dead – cooked by the hot steam. And in the shallow water, the mussels were all dead too – steamed by all that hot water.
Daniel and I both grieved as we strolled along our childhood playground, decimated and ruined; deprived of its innocent, untouched beauty. I sobbed quietly as I remembered the last time I had been to this beach. It was the fist time I had swam with Nova.
Nova. My heart broke as I thought of her. I had not seen her since the spill and I hoped she and her family had escaped its destruction.
I walked onto the pier and gazed over the calm water. In my mind I watched Nova’s dorsal break the waves, her starburst saddle patch lighting up my life again. The way things used to be.
“Oh my God, Becca, look!” Daniel pointed out to the exact spot where Nova coasted by in my imagination. “It’s Nova!”
“What?” She was real, I wasn’t imagining her. “Oh my God!”
I ran down the beach flailing my arms wildly as she continued to swim parallel to the shore. I instantly regretted leaving my wetsuit at home as I crashed through the trees and brush following her path around the island.
I could hear Daniel running behind me, keeping up as I chased my happiness around the side of the cove. I scrambled through the brush as she coasted out of sight, determined not to lose her yet. She wasn’t her usual rambunctious self, but which of us were anymore? But she was back. Nova was here!
But when I burst through the other side of the thick brush and onto another secluded beach, I felt all traces of my emerging joy spill out of me like the eleven million gallons of oil that changed my life. Daniel burst through the brush beside me and froze.
There on the beach, Jet lay on his side, all four-plus tones of him beached on the pebbled shore.
“Oh no, oh God no!” Daniel ran over to Jet and instantly got into the shallow water. With his hands he splashed Jet’s drying, rubbery skin. “Becca! Help me!”
But I couldn’t move. I watched as Daniel tried desperately to push Jet toward the water but it was hopeless. There was no one to call for help. We were miles away from Cordova, and there were no villages on this island. Jet would die.
“Becca, grab some water and get his blowhole wet. We can’t let him dehydrate.”
Nova’s piercing cry snapped me out of my daze. Her sad mewling broke my heart as I ran into the water and splashed as much as I could onto Jet’s dry body. He snorted a jet of air from his blowhole as if telling us to bug off, but when I ran my hand along the edge of the large nostril it came away coated in gooey oil. I couldn’t help my loud sob as my heart shattered.
“Please, Jet,” I begged as I wet his face. “Please, for Nova. Go back to her, please.” I begged for what felt like hours, until my hands and feet were frozen and I couldn’t feel them through my wet clothes.
During our efforts, Nova swam back and forth, crying loudly as she watched us work. For a scary moment she had hoisted herself into the shallows, but after screaming and flailing my arms at her, she had retreated back into the depths of the cold ocean water.
Daniel and I had tried as hard as we could to push Jet toward the water, but what could we do when a four-ton dolphin decided he was staying put?
Finally, we gave up.
I lay against Jet, rubbing his side. “It’s okay, boy.” I whispered. “We won’t leave you. I’ll watch over Nova for you.”
I cried against his dry skin – no longer shiny and slick. There was no life left in his eyes; just his infrequent, shallow breaths confirmed he was still alive.
“I love you Jet. Nova loves you.”
And then as silently as he had first appeared in my life, he left.
Another one lost.
“I joined the Army and I’m moving to Anchorage next week.” Daniel gave me his news as simply as if he were announcing what was for dinner.
“Excuse me?” Hot tears already flowed down my face as his words sank in. “You can’t leave me, Daniel!”
“Becca.” He sat beside me on the sofa and pulled me close. “I have to get away. You of all people should understand. I can’t stay here. I can’t watch all the people we love be depressed and lost. I can’t stay here and see the destruction. I have to go.”
A dry sob tore from my throat as I buried my face in his shoulder. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m sorry, Becca. I tried to tell you before, but then Jet ... I’m sorry.” He stroked my hair and I felt his tears fall onto my face as he cried with me. “Maybe you can come to Anchorage? We can talk to Dad.”
I shook my head. I knew I couldn’t leave Daddy alone. And I couldn’t leave the Sound. As much as the spill had destroyed our innocent happiness, the Sound was in my blood and I could never abandon it.
“I’ll come home to visit as often as I can, and you can come out to Anchorage for university next year, maybe?”
Daniel did his best to reassure me, but I was broken. And when the Ferry took him away from me, it took half my heart with it.
I saw Nova once that winter. She calmly swam with her pod, her spirit broken without Jet. No more exuberance, no more hyper dashes beneath our boat; she coasted by in a trance I knew well.
The following summer Daniel informed Daddy and I that he was being deployed somewhere in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia. Operation Desert Storm or something like that. I had never heard of Saudi Arabia before that day, but when Daddy found out why President Bush had decided to send my brother overseas, it started a shit storm like no one had ever seen.
Daddy railed to anyone in Cordova who would listen. Here we had oil coming out of our pores. Oil that we didn’t ask for, that we didn’t want, and now they were sending his son to some god-forsaken desert to fight for more god-damned-oil. Why couldn’t they just come and suck it up off our beaches and out of our fish and take it all off our hands.
One night a few weeks after Daniel had moved from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait, I had a dream about Nova and Jet. Daniel and I were out at the cove swimming. The crystal clear water smelled like the sunshine that beat down on our heads as we bobbed in the rolling waves. Nova and Jet swam around us, happily rubbing against the pebbled bottom of the cove.
A loud laugh burst from both Daniel and I as Jet and Nova leapt from the waves, back flipping and crashing back into the ocean with an enormous rolling sluice of water. The cove looked as pristine as it had in my memories – all white pebbles and untouched beauty.
Nova swam over to Daniel, nudging him with her round nose. I grabbed Jet’s enormous dorsal as he swam past and allowed him to pull me through the clear water over to where his sister and my brother floated.
Daniel hugged Nova’s nose as she pushed him through the warm water.
“Take care of her for me,” I heard Daniel whisper to Nova.
But before I could ask Daniel why he couldn’t just take care of me himself, Nova swam between us and circled me protectively. And then I was awake.
Daniel never made it home from his deployment. He was MIA, lost in an attack as he fought to protect that precious oil. The men who came to the house told Daddy they thought he might have been taken prisoner but I knew the truth: that god-damned oil has been the death of us all.
Daniel was gone. He had said goodbye to me in my dreams.
Another one lost.
It has been almost twenty years since the spill and the Sound has never completely recovered. The water is blue again, but still we find pockets of oil under the rocks on the beach. The seals sun themselves on Bligh Island again, but where there were hundreds and hundreds of animals, now there are only half that.
Slowly our lives have returned to normal, but never to its former glory.
I made my entire life about getting the Sound back the way it was - it’s what Daniel would have wanted.
“Mom! There’s Nova!”
I hurry to the front of the boat where my daughter clings eagerly to the low rail.
“I saw her Mom, I swear!”
“Are you sure, Daniela?” I scoop her into my arms and look out to where she is pointing. And then in true spirit, Nova bursts from the water not ten feet from the side of the boat, splashing us with her tail as she falls back into the dark depths. Beside her, her calf also bobs from the water before disappearing under the boat.
Daniela screeches with laughter as the salty water drenches us both. I sputter, brushing the sea water from my face as I shake my head in consternation.
“You should have expected that,” Jamie says as he comes to stand behind us. He wraps an arm around my waist and ruffles his daughter’s hair. “Nova hasn’t changed a bit since that first night we saw her.”
I smile and nod although I know he’s wrong. Nova has changed, and so have I. But somehow we’ve come through it all together.
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