The text on this site is presented as an archival version of the script of "Ocean Planet," a 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. The content reflects the state of knowledge at the time of the exhibition, and has not been updated.

The information on this buoy is divided into the three categories listed below.

When it comes to mixing oil and water, oceans suffer from far more than an occasional devastating spill. Disasters make headlines, but hundreds of millions of gallons of oil quietly end up in the seas every year, mostly from non-accidental sources §.

The graph below shows how many millions of gallons of oil each source puts into the oceans worldwide each year

Down the Drain: 363 Million Gallons

Routine Maintenance: 137 Million Gallons

Up in Smoke: 92 Million Gallons

Natural Seeps: 62 Million Gallons

Big Spills: 37 Million Gallons

Offshore Drilling: 15 Million Gallons


Spills and slicks sicken and kill

Large spills--even though a relatively minor source of ocean oil pollution--can be devastating. The same amount of oil can do more damage in some areas than others. Coral reefs and mangroves are more sensitive to oil than sandy beaches or sea-grass beds; intertidal zones are the most sensitive. Crude oil is most likely to cause problems §.

Dead oiled otter
a victim of the Exxon Valdez spill Prince William Sound, 1989

Oil-covered fur or feathers can't insulate marine mammals and diving birds from cold water, and when an animal cleans itself, it also swallows oil.
photo © Gary Braasch/Wheeler Pictures, Woodfin Camp & Associates

NOAA scientist collects samples from a rock sole after an oil spill, 1989

Even if oil exposure isn't immediately lethal, it can cause long-term harm.

Bottom-dwelling fish exposed to compounds released after oil spills may develop liver disease and reproductive and growth problems.
photo Northwest Fisheries Science Center/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Mangroves stand in oil from a ruptured refinery tank, Panama, 1986

Smithsonian Institution scientists monitored effects of this 1986 spill, one of the largest in tropical North America. Five years later, mangrove sediments still held fairly fresh, toxic oil. It may take the mangroves fifty years to recover fully.
photo © Carl C. Hansen


Treaty treats pollution problems

International cooperation has greatly reduced accidental and operational oil discharges from tankers. MARPOL (for MARine POLlution) is shorthand for a United Nations treaty (the Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) that became effective in 1983. MARPOL is largely credited for reducing oil pollution from shipping by about 60 percent worldwide during the 1980s §.

Workers install a machine for cleaning waste oil off the sides of the ship's cargo tanks
MARPOL requires installation and use of oil-pollution prevention equipment on tankers and other ships, and prohibits discharges within certain distances of land §.
photo © International Maritime Organization

More do-it-yourselfers are doing it right

More than half of all Americans change their own oil, but only about one-third of the used oil from do-it-yourself oil changes is collected and recycled. § Government and industry-sponsored oil collection and recycling programs in many communities are increasing awareness of the hazards of dumping used oil and the benefits of reusing it. §

Thousands of collection centers and service stations are accepting used oil for recycling. To find out about recycling oil in your area, contact your state environmental department or local recycling authority.

Additional Information is available from:

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)