Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oil Spill threatens Rockhopper Penguins

Rockhoppers on Nightengale Is.
Used with permission (photographer@penguinity.com).

It is among the most ecologically unspoiled spots on the planet, teaming with wildlife.  But while the attention world is directed elsewhere, this oceanic Eden could be lost forever.

In the early hours of March 16, the MS Olivia, a Malta-flagged 250 meter Greek freighter, en route from Brazil to Singapore, rammed headlong into an island at high velocity.  Over the past two weeks, the cargo vessel has been spilling its contents -- 60,000 tonnes of soybean oil and up to 12,000 tonnes of heavy crude oil-- into the pristine waters of Tristan da Cunha, a remote group of volcanic islands in the South Atlantic.   Pictures of the wreck are posted here.  The islands, situated almost midway between South America and the Horn of Africa are home to a variety of endangered species, including the albatross and tens of thousands of rockhopper penguins.

Thirteen known species of seabird breed on the islands. Tristan and Gough Islands are the only known breeding sites in the world for the Atlantic petrel.  One of the big worries is that rats may have escaped onto island from the sinking ship.    If rats ever made it onto the island they could multiply and wipe out the seabird population in a very short time. 

Arrow points to Tristan da Cunha. It is a British
dependentterritory claimed 1653. Administratively,
its part of St. Helena and the Dependencies.
There are three main islands in the group: Tristan da Cunha, Nightengale, and Inaccessible.   The ship ran aground on the north side of Nightengale Is, and the currents have carried the oil to Inaccessible Is.   Tristan de Cunha, the only inhabited island in the group, is home to about 300 people.  All the families farm, and all land is owned communally.  The islanders' main source of income is fishing and harvesting lobsters.   The fisheries have been closed since the disaster.

At this time thousands of rockhopper penguins are covered with oil and in desperate need of rescue.  A rescue operation is being organized from Cape Town, the closest city.  In the meantime the islanders are using what few supplies they have to clean as many of the thousands of oil soaked penguins as possible, and coral the young molting penguins behind a fence to prevent them from going into the water.

Now let's take a look at two videos: one taken just after the disaster last week, followed by a video taken previous to the disaster.

Andrew Evans, an outstanding citizen journalist, happened onto the scene a few days after the MS Olivia broke apart.   The traveler paints a devastating picture of what has happened in this heartbreaking video:

Andrew Evans has also written a blog post at National Geographic detailing what he encountered.

Here is another video of Tristan da Cunha rockhoppers or "pinamin" as they are known locally.  Taken two summers ago, this video features members of the penguin colony on Inaccessible Is.

How to help? 
The island's website is the best place to start.  When I find out more I will let you know. As the website explains, volunteers can't be flown in because there is no airport.  The islands are a four days journey by ship out of Cape Town.

Update 1:  It may be possible to donate online to SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds).   Apparently they are sending a ship to Tristan.

Update 2:  From an email passed along to Jotman:  "SANCCOB has been requested to prepare an oiled seabird rescue and have departed to take the team and equipment to the island. It takes about 5 – 7 days to get there, depending on the weather."  This is good news.

Update 3: The Tristan da Cunha website reports that stormy seas have hampered the rescue efforts and that oil has reached the island of Tristan where one rockhopper penguin was found on the beach covered in oil.  The report includes an update on rockhopper rehabilitation efforts as of 29 March: "In the rehab shed the team are doing really well and fed every single penguin, 1593 penguins in total.  More of the cleaner penguins were moved out to the swimming pool, making 282 now in the pool. There are approx 500 penguins left in the shed which gives us room for up to 600 possible new arrivals, as the rest were all strong enough to go outside. It also provides an opportunity to put down a fresh layer of volcanic sand. Nightingale is still holding approximately 600 penguins which it is hoped can be collected soon."

On the website you will find view photos that document the rockhopper penguin rehabilitation process.   A number of penguins in the ICU have died.  

Meanwhile, at Inacessible Is. over a hundred oiled rockhopper penguins have had to be released due to the stormy conditions.  The rescue crew is focusing all its efforts on protecting some 1500 penguins that have not been exposed to any oil.   

Update 4On March 31st the Tristan da Cunha website reported: "There are now approximately 2400 oiled penguins in the rehabilitation centre divided between the shed, ICU, outside pens and the swimming pool. More of the cleaner penguins (less than 20% oiled) were transferred to the pool today, making 544 penguins there in total. Justin Green, one of those feeding the penguins at the pool, reported that there are now thirty penguins taking fish strips by hand. Each penguin is given up to 15 strips and some of the penguins are then pecking at the feeders' boots for more. Penguins in the 'thin' penguin pen are being fed twice a day. This means that we currently need over 450kg of fish (raw meat) each day to feed all the penguins. The rehab team on Tristan are on standby to receive 539 penguins to be transported there this evening, bringing the total on the main island close to 3000."

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