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

by

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.

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