SEATTLE - Children giggle and adults supply the oohs and aahs as Nuka, the Alaskan sea otter, frolics in her enclosure at the Seattle Aquarium. But her handlers know what the 21-year-old female has been through and what sea creatures can expect in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Well, it's a tragedy," said Seattle Aquarium mammal biologist Caroline Hempstead. "What we've learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill is, it not only affects animals at the present time, but it's long term."
Nuka was born in the middle of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster where Alaskan beaches were coated with oil that killed everything in sight. Birds, fishes, and sea otters suffocated, choked and froze to death after oil covered their bodies.
"There were roughly 300 sea otters rescued from the Exxon Valdez spill, and presently, there are maybe two or three left in captivity," said Hempstead.
Nuka has lived a long life but has been plagued with health problems along the way. Specialists don't know for sure if she is suffering from her early exposure to oil, but know oil can cause health problems in mammals for years after they come in contact with it.
Oil is a persistent toxin, a carcinogen that can hang around in our marsh lands and our bodies for years. It won't just be sea otters in the Gulf, it will be reptiles; turtles, alligators and an incredible variety of sea and shore birds at risk there.
The oil in the Gulf is already taking a toll on wildlife and that's just the beginning. Not only will oil be floating up on beaches and marshes for years to come, oil is a carcinogen, and while animals may survive contact with it, they may only to lose their lives to cancer years down the road.
Now there are of course many differences between the Gulf spill and that one that threatened Nuka back in 1989 – mainly, in 1989 there was a known amount of oil spilling. But with the Gulf oil spill, no one knows how much is out there or when they can get it turned off.