The Ixtoc 1 oil spill in Mexico's shallow Campeche Sound three decades ago serves as a distant mirror to today's BP deep-water blowout, and marine scientists are still pondering what they learned from its aftereffects. In terms of blowouts, Ixtoc 1 was a monster — until the BP leak, the largest accidental spill in history. Some 3.3 million barrels of oil gushed over nearly 10 months, spreading an oil slick as far north as Texas, where gooey tar balls washed up on beaches. Surprisingly, Mexican scientists say Campeche Sound itself recovered rather quickly, and a sizable shrimp industry returned to normal within two years.
Luis Soto, a deep-sea biologist, had earned his doctorate from the University of Miami a year before the June 3, 1979, blowout of Ixtoc 1 in 160 feet of water in the Campeche Sound, the shallow, oil-rich continental shelf off the Yucatán Peninsula. Soto and other Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the blowout in March 1980. "To be honest, because of our ignorance, we thought everything was going to die," Soto said.
As the studies extended into a second year, scientists noticed how fast the marine environment recovered, helped by naturally occurring microbes that feasted on the oil and degraded it. Perhaps due to those microbes, aquatic life along the shoreline in Texas had returned to normal within three years — even as tar balls and tar mats remained along the beaches, sometimes covered by sand, according to Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Harte Research Institute of Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. "We were really surprised," Lizarraga said. "After two years, the conditions were really almost normal."