Oiled Penguins in South Africa

This guest blog on oiled African penguins, was provided by volunteer Nancy Neal Yeend.  Thank you Nancy, for providing such an interesting story to our readers!

African Penguins


Nancy Neal Yeend

What started as a research project soon turned into a rescue mission. For two weeks in late August and early September I participated in an EarthWatch[1] project, where volunteers assisted University of Cape Town researchers studying the impact of oil spills on the South African penguin population, and their nesting and chick-rearing habits.

Background: The site, Robben Island, located 13 miles northwest of Cape Town is famous for its prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 19 years.  The island is now a UN World Heritage site. The island hosts a fur seal colony and in the 1600s the Dutch named the island: “robben” meaning “seal.”

In 2000 a major oil spill occurred when the Treasure, a Greek-owned iron-ore carrier, sank. The catastrophe prompted the world’s largest animal rescue. Over 40,000 penguins were oiled, and approximately 19,000 were saved through the Herculean efforts of SANCCOB, South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, and 12,500 volunteers.[2]

South African penguins are now an endangered species and are found primarily along the western islands and edge of the South African coast to Namibia. They stand about two feet tall, weigh about 8 to 10 pounds, and are distinguished by pink coloration above their eye.[3]

It is estimated that in the 1700s there were over 3.5 million breeding pairs of South African penguins. Because of egg collecting by sailors and early settlers, the population dropped to about 1.5 million pairs by 1900. Since that time overfishing and oil spills have dramatically reduced the population to approximately 40,000 pairs. Although sharks and fur seals remain the natural predators, man has had the most significant impact on the population decline.

Research: There are several research projects addressing a variety of issues faced by South African penguins. Dr. Richard Shirley headed the EarthWatch program and other researchers joined our group of three volunteers. Our tasks included weighing and measuring chicks, identifying abandoned nests, population counts, and related monitoring activities. There appears to be a connection between oil spills and a decline in penguin egg viability and an increase in nest abandonment.

Some nests are difficult to find in the wild, chest-high, canola that flourishes during the breeding season. Because much of this rocky island is capped with sand, artificial nests were constructed to decrease nest collapse. The old wooden A-frame style nests are being replaced by fiberglass “igloos.” Although most penguins still nest under the native brush, many of these plants have thorns, and penguins seem to like nesting in or near nettles, so access is a challenge.  There are a few abandoned World War II gun emplacements on the island, and some penguins have managed to nest amidst the debris.

Oiled Penguins: As I arrived in Cape Town on August 24th a storm rolled through the region, and the attendant wave action, coupled with the power of the Antarctic Current that runs along the coast, caused a 2009 sunken ship to break up. On September 1st, an oil slick, approximately 8 miles long and 30 yards wide, appeared in the channel between Cape Town and Robben Island. Oiled penguins began appearing the following day.

Over the course of the week, our team caught over 200 oiled penguins and took them to the SANCCOB facility for cleaning.  In addition to catching oiled birds, we had to check all known nests and rescue chicks whose parents had been oiled. Over 70 chicks were also sent to SANCCOB for hand rearing, and will ultimately be released after they fledge.

At the end of the week only three dead penguins were found. Although these numbers pale in comparison to the 2000 Treasure spill, this situation is replicated each July and August as winter rages in the southern hemisphere. The Robben Island penguin population has declined from 6000 breeding pairs in 2007 to fewer than 2300 now, and the numbers continue to decline.

[1] For detailed information go to www.Earthwatch.org.

[2] For a fascinating, first-hand account, read The Great Penguin Rescue by Dyan deNapoli, published in 2010 by Free Press.

[3] The pink comes from blood flowing to a gland, located above the eye socket, that helps regulate the penguin’s body temperature.

Labor of Love

The fish oil pelican event in northern California continues.  Tim and I just returned from Arcata last night, where we were continuing to help our friends at Bird Ally X with a variety of tasks related to caring for the pelicans that have been impacted by fish oil discharge from fish-cleaning stations in Crescent City and Shelter Cove over the past month or so.  Tim helped build a new washing table (see picture below), and I did a variety of jobs, including feeding, washing, and caring for the pelicans.  It was a very positive experience for me and I learned so much during the past few days.


Brand new wash table.

The general feeling that one gets being at the facility is how similar this is to a real oil spill.  Time is of the essence – to capture the birds affected as quickly as possible, because the quicker you capture them, usually the better shape they are in; to set up the facilities and personnel needed to care for such a large number of animals; and lastly, to continue to operate, day after day, on little sleep (and usually lots of sugar and caffeine) without burning out.


Lucinda and Laura washing a pelican – a long process that takes an hour or more.

Animal care is the focus of a response of this nature, but without the humans caring for the animals, the whole operation would fail.  And it is the human aspect, which is at its finest, in times of crisis.  Without the help and support of people, Bird Ally X would not be able to care for these pelicans.  Not only is the financial support essential, but also the support of the countless volunteers that come to help out every day and are willing to go home smelling like fish and pelican vomit.  These people put in long hours doing jobs that are not all that glamorous, such as loads of laundry, thawing thousands of fish, and hosing down pelican enclosures.  There is also Linda, who shows up with a smiling face every day around 5:00 pm with delicious out-of-this-world home cooked meals for all the staff and volunteers.  I very much enjoyed meeting and working with everyone the past few days.


Monte, Laura, January, Kyra, and Tim in front of the washing hut.

Like pieces of a puzzle, every little bit that everyone does contributes to the overall success of a response, whether it is fish oil or crude oil that coats the birds’ feathers.  In the wise words of Aesop, “it is not only fine feathers that make fine birds”.  Even though these pelicans are covered in fish oil and for the moment don’t have “fine” feathers, I feel certain that at least most of them will be just “fine”.  They are receiving excellent care by an amazing group of people that care for them deeply.

Happy weekend, everyone!


Pelicans and fish waste don’t mix

Temporary pelican housing in Arcata

Tim, Becky, and I just returned from Arcata where we were helping our friends at Bird Ally X and Humboldt Wildlife Care Center with a pelican response.  Pelicans all along the north coast have been contaminated with fish waste being discharged into the ocean.  Instead of getting a free meal, they get oily feathers and lose their waterproofing.  Although Bird Ally X is working with local authorities to stop the discharge, in the meantime they have more than 100 contaminated pelicans waiting to be washed.

Tim and Becky spent all day Tuesday working on facilities, finishing up another tent to house dirty pelicans. Tim made some improvements on the other tents, increasing ventilation with strategically placed holes and some fans.  I examined and bled pelicans already in care, did some intake exams, and looked at the medical cases.  Becky helped with pelican exams, cared for sick pelicans, and processed the blood samples.  Tim also built a second wash station, which will help a lot, as many birds are currently ready for wash.

They have some very dedicated interns and volunteers helping out, but because it is summer in this college town, there aren’t as many people around to help.  On the other hand, a steady stream of new volunteers came through the doors, showing that the local community is eager to help with their pelican population.  Volunteers also took care of the staff, bringing by coffee, bagels, snacks, and even home-cooked meals!  Luckily, the pelicans are self-feeding, so that helps simplify things a bit.

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit the Humboldt Bay area, now’s the time — volunteers are urgently needed to help with construction as well as washing and animal care.


Here’s Becky showing off her talents at facilities modification!

Pelicans in a tent, with their new ventilation fan visible in back, courtesy of Tim.

OWCN goes on the road to Santa Cruz for drill

On Wednesday the entire OWCN crew headed down to Santa Cruz for a tabletop drill held with the MWVCRC (Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center) and OSPR (The Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, California Department of Fish and Game). The main goal of the 1-day drill was to test out existing and newly drafted response protocols for oiled sea otters.

The initial DRILL scenario (NOT a real spill) was a collision between a cruise ship (1.5 million gallons of fuel oil) and a 58’ sardine boat (3000 gallons of diesel) that occurred just off the breakwater in Monterey Harbor at 6 AM. The sardine boat was sinking and most of the diesel was presumed to be in the water. No fuel was observed leaking from the cruise ship. Since this drill was modeled to occur right in the heart of sea otter country, where otter densities are highest, the drill achieved its goal to test our protocols for any weaknesses during worst-case scenarios.

After an initial organizational meeting, Drill Attendees split out into Groups & Units as described by the Incident Command System (ICS) that is used by OPSR to organize oil spill responses. We limited our drill assignments to the Wildlife Branch of the ICS structure. The following positions were filled: Wildlife Branch Director and her support staff, Recovery & Transportation Group Supervisor, Care & Processing Group Supervisor and her support staff (Administration, Facility Volunteer Coordinator, Facility Coordinator, Facility Manager), Field Stabilization Unit Leader, & Care Unit Leader who supervised the Intake & Processing Team, Pre-wash Care Team, Wash Team, Post-wash Care Team, & Support Staff. It takes a lot of people to respond to an oil spill, even if its only a drill!

The drill was a great opportunity for the staff of OWCN and the sea otter experts at MWVCRC and DFG to collaborate. The teams worked together to fine-tune current oil spill response protocols. OSPR sent down a contingent of staff and their knowledge and familiarity with ICS and large spill protocols was greatly appreciated. Working closely with such dedicated and experienced professionals was a great experience. Plus the people that routinely work with wildlife are just fun!

My only complaint was that while we were just a few hundred yards away from the ocean, we worked so hard that none of us got outside to watch any waves or seabirds, much less sea otters!

Care & Processing Group Members discuss readiness during an oils spill drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Barbara VanGilder (UC Davis Senior Veterinary Student Extern), Hannah Nevins (MWVCRC), Chris Fiorello (OWCN) & Melissa Miller (MWVCRC)

Recovery & Transportation Group discusses plans for capturing oiled otters during drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Colleen Young (MWVCRC), Mike Ziccardi (OWCN), Kyra Parker (OWCN)



Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Two Years and Counting…

Last year, on this date, I noted that the DWH spill was still very much in everyones minds and hearts through retrospective media reports, images and personal stories.  Now that we are at two years after the start of the incident, media (and public) interest once again has peaked about the spill, but for more troubling reasons from an environmental perspective.

Reports have begun to surface related to potential impacts on the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico – impacts that scientists are attempting to carefully determine whether they may be associated with the more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and the more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant applied. These (with appropriate links) include:

However, there is some good news on this front. Scientists, with sizable funding support, are attacking these questions with a voracity that is rarely seen with environmental issues, attempting to ascertain the root causes of these (and other) problems. While it is easy to point the finger and blame the spill outright for such impacts, without using sound scientific principles, the ultimate outcomes can become muddled due to little baseline (pre-spill) information, the possibility of several “smoking guns” causing sick animals, and other confounding issues. With the skills of the folks working these problems, I have little doubt that we will get better results than is often seen after other disasters.

You may say “who cares?” a bit to all this science-speak; the environment is still messed up. And shouldn’t we concentrate on other more important issues, such as increasing prevention and better understanding how to care for oiled animals in the future? Well, I would say: why not do all three? In addition to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects going on, we have basic science occuring, with organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to better understand the impacts of oil and dispersant on the GoM ecosystem. We also have significant efforts occurring at the Federal level to minimize the risks of incidents such as the DWH occurring in the future, with new innovations on blowout prevention and control coming forward and a newly-aligned MMS focusing on the risks.

On the oiled wildlife front, most oiled wildlife response organizations I know of have taken the time to evaluate their own processes and methods to see how they can do things better. Just this past week, Emily gave a webinar on changes to the OWCN protocols for animal care, and a fully revised version of both the oiled bird as well as mammal protocols, are on the horizon. On the international front, a newly-energized effort has been taking place trying to better develop a method to provide worldwide oiled wildlife response capabilities through a organized collaboration of key organizations. In all, these are exciting times!

This is not to say we should become complacent. The best clean-up effort, after all, is prevention of oiling of our wildlife in the first place. Both Nationally as well as Internationally, we have a long way to go to be able to be comfortable with our plans and systems. On the oiled wildlife side, while we have come a long way in the past decades, we always have things to learn and plans to develop and test to ensure rapid, efficient and effective collection and care, should animals become affected.

In closing, I would like to conclude this blog/discussion/soapbox asking you to join me in remembering the 11 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon rig who perished on this day. I wish everyone a safe and healthy April 20th.

- Mike

On the road

Hello, Emily here.  I’m writing from the road as I spend a couple of weeks traveling in California.  This week, Christine, Tim, Nancy, Megan (a UCD 4th year vet student extern), and I have had the pleasure and the privilege of helping with the initial efforts of a research project on sea otters in southern California.  The project is a collaboration among biologists, veterinarians, and researchers from the US Geological Survey, CA Department of Fish and Game, Monterey Bay Aquarium, University of Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara Zoo, and others.   Researchers are working here to understand the life of an otter at the southern extent of the range.  For a few pictures of our work, you can visit OSPR’s Facebook site.

Next week, I’m headed to the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro to work with International Bird Rescue.  Winter weather often brings oil to the surface of the ocean especially in southern California, and this year is no different.  Over the past week, we’ve seen tarballs and oil patties on the beaches and in the water, likely from these seeps.  A large number of birds, especially common murres, have been affected by natural seep oil over the past few months.  OWCN Member Organizations work hard to rehabilitate these animals and return them to the ocean.  They also report them to the OWCN so that we can monitor trends in space and time.  Feather samples can be analyzed by the California Department of Fish and Game’s Petroleum Chemistry lab to determine the source, and if the oil is determined to be from an anthropogenic source, rather than a natural seep, the OWCN is activated to respond.  The OWCN is not activated for animals affected by natural seeps; instead, we work to support our Member Organizations by helping to offset costs and by providing our time.  I’m looking forward to my time at LAOBCEC next week – it will be a fantastic learning opportunity for me, and I’m eager to help out.  For some more information about natural seep oil, check out this site by USGS.


What Has Brown Done For The OWCN Lately?!?

For those of you who have attended Oilapalooza for several years now, you know that the OWCN has been working diligently on developing a medical records database that will capture electronically much of the basic information that we all collect during spills.

Imagine – field data that doesn’t have to be entered on the bird box, the beach search effort, the field stabilization form, the Live Animal Log, and the Intake sheet! Paradise you might say – and I would agree! Even better, for those of us who have played “Bird Record Bingo” with the records late at night during large spills to collate and reconcile the data so that wash lists, pre-wash exam lists, pre-release evaluations can be done at the earliest opportunity. Ah, it brings a small tear to my eye just thinking of it!

Well, in order to try and make this happen, the OWCN has been working for a long, long time on different iterations of just such a system (and as the resident Ol’ Timer on this, I have files and versions dating back to 1998 discussing this very issue). The most recent exciting evolution of this has been partnering with UPS (yes, Big Brown) on the modification of their TrackPad system, used for tracking packages throughout the world, to track birds (and their data) through the facility. This system will use a combination of handheld PCs and laptop computers, all connected to both a local server and a remote server at UC Davis, to capture the basic info we need to move animals through to system. Ideally, this will also include the integration of bar codes on bands, on cages/pools and on examiners so that those basic data can be quickly and effectively collected with few errors.

On the data analysis side, this system would (and will) be coupled with custom reports so that, at the push of a button, we can have bird wash lists generated based on pre-established criteria, medical records available to review, and the animal number so urgently needed by the Unified Command available on a near-real-time capability.

All this sounds great, you say. Well, where is it?!? Well, we have had a number of hurdles to go over – some more challenging than others (Deepwater Horizon, loss of key OWCN staff), some more technical in nature (the OWCN Director needing to learn server technology) and some simply due to the lack of time from all parties involved. However, in the last several months, due largely to the persistence of Emily and the availability of Mike Dutra (our UPS lead contact), we are making great strides in moving forward. We actually have a system ready to be “alpha-tested”, looking at entering the data from each of the facility areas and ensuring this information is correctly transferred to the servers. Once that is done, we will be ready to work directly with our other rehabilitation partners to ensure the information captured is done in the most effective manner.

So, while it isn’t ready for the official unveiling quite yet, I am ecstatic about our most recent progress. Hopefully, at the next Oilapalooza, we will have more than just pretty pictures to show – maybe we can have wet labs on how to run the system! Stay tuned!

- Mike