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Rescued penguins being released back into the sea after they were soaked in an oil spill off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, August 24, 2000

When oil gushes into the ocean, the consequences can be indelible. Individuals, ecosystems, even entire communities can be devastated, never to return to what they were before. Yet there are people who rush into the danger zone, for no other reason than to assist the wild creatures caught up in the slick. Dyan deNapoli’s book The Great Penguin Rescue tells the story of the largest wildlife rescue ever mounted. She was a penguin aquarist at Boston’s New England Aquarium when an oil spill occurred off the South African coast in 2000, and she immediately volunteered to fly to Cape Town to help with the rescue. As one of the few people on the planet with expertise in handling and caring for sick penguins, she would have a large part in what followed.

The book opens with deNapoli’s arrival at the enormous warehouse in the heart of Cape Town that served as an improvised penguin rescue center. It covered over five acres, and inside were 16,000 soiled, mute, and traumatized African penguins, each of which would require many weeks of rehabilitation if it were to have a chance at survival. They had all, she later wrote, been “ripped from their nests, their mates, and their chicks, then tossed haphazardly into random holding pens.” The cause of their misery was a relatively small oil spill of around 1,500 tons. But the size of the spill is no guide to its impact on seabirds. The recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was, at around 580,000 tons, one of the largest recorded. But since it occurred when migratory birds were absent and in an environment where the oil degraded quickly, it affected only around six thousand seabirds. The much smaller Exxon Valdez spill, in contrast, occurred in a region dense with seabirds where the oil degraded slowly, and so resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million birds. The timing and location of the South African Treasure spill could not have been worse for one of the world’s most-loved birds.

The tuxedo-like plumage, upright posture, and extraordinary devotion of penguins to their families appeal deeply to many of us. The animated movie Happy Feet, which is based on the life of the emperor penguin, was the third-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Quite apart from introducing penguins and their ways to a vast audience, it brought to the fore their plight in a world increasingly dominated by human activity, and in which threats to them only continue to multiply. As great as the threats portrayed by the film were, they pale when compared to those documented in The Great Penguin Rescue.

In June 2000, for the African penguin, the threat took the form of the MV Treasure, an aging iron ore carrier that was making its way from Brazil to China. Owned by the Greek-based company Universal Pearls, it was a “flag of convenience” vessel registered in Panama. The laws and safety standards required of such ships are often lax, and just nine months earlier an inspection of the Treasure had revealed twenty deficiencies—yet the vessel was allowed to sail on regardless. When the ship was off the coast of Cape Town, a hole measuring thirty-five by ninety feet was noticed in its side. Nobody knew what had caused it, but the captain felt he had no choice but to put into Cape Town harbor. The ship was too large for the port, so when the Treasure limped into Table Bay in foul weather, it was immediately ordered back out to sea and required to transfer oil and fuel to other vessels once safely offshore. But as the stricken ship started from the harbor on June 22 it began to take on water, and the crew soon had to be evacuated by helicopter. A tug was then commissioned to tow the Treasure out to sea, but the towline parted and the abandoned vessel was blown ever closer to the great penguin breeding colonies on Robben and Dassen islands. After the ship struck submerged rocks between the islands, it sank, and 1,344 tons of heavy fuel oil, fifty-six tons of marine diesel, and sixty-four tons of lube oil began gushing into the waters of the bay.

Penguins and other seabirds are particularly vulnerable to oil spills. Some biologists believe that fish are attracted to floating oil slicks—much as they are to any floating object—and schools of fish inevitably attract penguins, as well as other seabirds and seals. When these air-breathing creatures attempt to feed on the fish, they must enter the slick, and so become oiled. The penguin breeding season was in full swing when the Treasure sank, and the shores of the islands were thick with fluffy chicks, their parents frantically setting out to sea to secure enough food to bring their young to maturity.


Within a week or so almost 20,000 birds had become soiled with oil. Even a spot of oil the size of a dime spells inevitable death for a penguin, for it destroys the feathers’ waterproofing, allowing freezing water to come into contact with the bird’s down and skin. Oiled birds have just two options: stay at sea and die of hypothermia, or come to land and slowly starve. Thankfully, most birds came to land, making them easier to rescue.

The task of rescuing soiled seabirds falls almost entirely upon volunteers, and they typically have scant financial resources with which to undertake it. Some, such as deNapoli, fly halfway around the world to help. The scale of the tragedy triggered by the Treasure oil spill, however, was such that there were nowhere near enough experienced rescuers to complete the task. Appeals were broadcast on radio and television for ordinary citizens to come forward, and over 12,500 volunteered. They included both blacks and whites (which was unusual in South Africa at the time), and were drawn from every level in society—from a woman with perfectly coiffed hair, beautifully manicured nails, and a “gigantic diamond ring on one finger” to the homeless. Businessmen arrived each evening still in their suits and ties, and farmers came in from the countryside as time permitted.

In times of crisis, people sometimes discover that they possess unsuspected skills and resources. Mike Herbig was one such. At 6'10" and weighing 270 pounds, he ran a martial arts school. But he was touched by the plight of the penguins, and on arriving at the chaotic rescue center he immediately saw the need for order. He assigned thousands of volunteers to particular tasks, and was “a one-man coach and cheerleading squad” who invariably lifted the spirits of the exhausted and discouraged rescuers around him. By the end of the rescue, Mike had become a much-loved leader and manager of a vast workforce.

Another remarkable volunteer was Didi Ettisch. She was one of the first to arrive, and initially worked converting the warehouse into a penguin rescue center. For weeks she would arrive home from the center at 4 AM, grab an hour or two of sleep, and head back to work by 6 AM. Competent and reliable, she was soon nominated a section leader responsible for several hundred penguins and for training new volunteers. When she collapsed from dehydration, it was discovered that she was just fourteen years old. Because of the stress and danger of the work, the rescue organizers had imposed an age limit on volunteers, and she was asked to leave.

Even such herculean efforts, however, were not enough to deal with the crisis and almost immediately the rescuers faced a terrible choice. Should they concentrate on cleaning the oiled adults, or retrieve the chicks which were slowly starving to death at the unattended nests? The year 2000 had been the most successful breeding season in many years, and there were 15,000 chicks at all stages of development on the islands. Yet it was decided that the rescue must concentrate on the adults. As experienced breeding birds, their survival was more important to the species than was that of the chicks, of which only 15 percent typically survive to breed.

Despite the focus on the adults, there were still sufficient volunteers to rescue around 3,500 chicks. Raising penguin chicks is a complex and time-consuming business. They need to be fed every few hours via a soft rubber tube that is inserted into their stomachs, and through which a fishy “milkshake” is poured. If the tube is mistakenly inserted into the trachea, the chick can die.

The terrible decision about which chicks would receive aid and which would not fell to Steve Sarro and Lauren DuBois. They were responsible for examining each box of chicks as it was brought in, and culling the small and weak. When Lauren returned to her job as a penguin chick raiser at a California aquarium, she had great difficulty adjusting. By day she could find nobody who understood what she had gone through, while her nights were haunted by dreams of penguin chicks looking imploringly up at her as she flushed them down the toilet. What made it doubly difficult was the knowledge that she had possessed the expertise to save the chicks but lacked the time to do it. Each hour of sleep, each toilet or food break, represented another doomed chick.

Feeding and cleaning adult wild penguins is hard work, and such was the urgency that highly skilled volunteers like Dyan deNapoli ended up working eighteen hours a day under almost inconceivable conditions. On first entering the warehouse deNapoli was almost overcome by a “wall of overpowering odor” consisting of a mixture of acidic guano (penguin poo), bunker oil, sardines, coal dust, and human sweat; the smell was so overwhelming that she had to breathe through her mouth to stop from gagging. It was an hour before her olfactory sense adjusted, allowing her to breathe normally, but each day she had to reacclimate herself to the fetid atmosphere, spending the first few hours gagging and dry-retching. So permeating was the stench that there was no escape:


Like an invasive parasite, it infiltrated into every pore of our skin, penetrated every strand of our hair, and permeated every fibre of our clothing, backpacks, and shoes…. Each night when I showered, as soon as the hot water hit my long hair, the putrid smell that was locked into each strand was released, filling the shower stall with a heavy mist that smelled like the inside of the warehouse.

The building housing the penguins had been a train-loading shed for coal and was full of hazardous coal dust. Even months later, some volunteer rescuers suffered from persistent coughs. The use of the shed had become necessary; the original site for the clean-up, at the SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), was meant to house just two thousand penguins but already held five thousand. The warehouse had been fitted to receive the overflow in only three days. The chick feeding center, which was also located there, acted as a sort of haven for burned-out volunteers. It was filled with the unique odor of the chicks, which some describe as “intoxicating,” and the antics of the bundles of fluff were sure to bring a smile to the face of even the most stressed-out rescuer. As deNapoli writes, “It definitely took courage” for those unused to handling wild creatures to pluck an angry penguin from its nest or plunge an arm into a group of corralled birds.

The first task at the center was to sort the incoming penguins into the badly oiled, sick, or emaciated (which needed urgent attention) and those that could wait awhile. Medicated ointment was placed in the eyes of all incoming birds, and they were given an iron tablet to counteract the iron loss caused by the toxins in the oil, along with activated charcoal to help absorb any oil in their gut. The warehouse was filled with round vinyl pools, each holding one hundred penguins. These pools had to be cleaned every day with fire hoses. Then there was the food that had to be prepared—up to ten tons of the sardines called pilchards per day. Add to this managing, feeding, and training of the volunteers and the job was enormous, even before the penguin cleaning began.

Washing penguins is a painfully slow process. It took a volunteer four days to learn the technique, and the birds had to be allowed a few days to acclimate before being put through the trauma. In previous rescues, birds that were washed immediately had a high mortality rate. Because the severely oiled birds had to be dealt with first (to prevent them ingesting the toxin), some birds had to wait two months to get their first wash. Working at peak efficiency, it took an average of forty-five minutes to scrub the oil off a penguin.

The process, deNapoli says, is “like trying to hold on to and bathe a soap-covered, aquaphobic toddler who’s in the midst of a raging temper tantrum.” Most penguins required three or four washings, and the heavily oiled ones ten. Every last speck of oil had to be removed, otherwise the icy ocean water would fatally penetrate their feathers. With a penguin fully cleaned, the process was far from over. They then had to be swum every day for several weeks to waterproof their feathers.

What’s it like to be bitten by a penguin? The volunteers were nipped on every part of their bodies. One night, toward the end of her stay, deNapoli stripped off her damp, soiled clothes to shower and caught a glimpse of her naked body in a mirror. She was horrified by what she saw. From chest to ankle it was covered in “dozens of raw, red slashes and multicolored bruises”—the result of dozens of bites. She had been so focused on her task that she had learned to ignore the bites as she worked, and only then realized their extent.

As the work went on, great uncertainty prevailed about the situation at sea. Fifty-five thousand unoiled penguins remained on Dassen Island, but the slick was spreading nearer and something had to be done. In desperation, the rescuers decided that they must relocate as many as possible away from the slick. But these were birds on nests, and without their parents the younger chicks would perish. It was heartbreaking work moving 12,345 unoiled adults to Port Elizabeth, some five hundred miles to the east, but releasing them there meant it would take them around a fortnight to swim back to Dassen Island—enough time for the slick to disperse. The rescuers were greatly relieved when they discovered that most of the chicks on the island were old enough to survive unaided. Only 707 needed to be brought to the rescue center.

On October 10, 2000, the last of the rescued penguins was returned to Table Bay. Of the 38,500 adult penguins directly affected by the oil spill, only 1,868 had lost their lives, and around two thirds of the chicks cared for had survived to release. The rescued chicks did particularly well subsequently, breeding at an early age. The oiled adults, however, carried a permanent legacy of the toxic oil, in the form of reduced fertility.

Like many rescuers, deNapoli had trouble adapting to “normal” life on returning home. She found it particularly hard that she was required to leave before even one of the rescued birds had been released. Increasingly she could find no meaning in her life. After having helped rescue thousands of birds in South Africa—and thus helping determine the fate of a species—caring for the small group of captured penguins in Boston seemed insignificant. So she left the Boston Aquarium and became “The Penguin Lady,” devoting her energies to raising awareness of, and funding for, penguins. Part of the proceeds of The Great Penguin Rescue will go toward the cause.

The Great Penguin Rescue vividly brings to life the environmental catastrophe that can follow an oil spill, but to see the full scale of the problem facing African penguins one must examine the history of other oil spills off South Africa. In 1948, the Esso Wheeling sank off Dyer Island, oiling thousands of birds. In 1952, oil from an unknown source affected 1,200 more, and in 1968, the Esso Essen ran aground off Cape Point, killing between 14,000 and 19,000 birds. It was in response to this disaster that SANCCOB was founded, providing the possibility that some oiled birds might survive. In 1970, a further 1,000 penguins were oiled; in 1971, another 1,216; in 1972, 4,500 (in two separate episodes); in 1974, “several thousand”; in 1983, 800; in 1985, 1,180; in 1994, 10,000; in 1996, 1,200; and in 1998, 563.

SANCCOB still receives around one thousand birds each year that are oiled from unknown sources. Many of these may be contaminated with oil released during ballast cleaning at sea (which is illegal, but nonetheless regularly occurs) or from releases of oil from old wrecks. Astonishingly, on January 15 this year, an oil slick a quarter of a mile long suddenly appeared in Table Bay. It had erupted from the remains of the Treasure, which still lay rusting away 165 feet below.

Before the coming of the Euro-peans, African penguins numbered in the millions. During the nineteenth century, egg and guano collecting took a huge toll, but that was nothing compared to the stresses we have placed on them during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Among the long list of threats they now face is being hooked or netted and drowned by fishermen, being oiled, or starving to death as a result of climate change altering the ocean currents that bring the anchovy within their reach. As a result, during the last fifty years, the world population of African penguins has plummeted by 95 percent. Between 2000 and 2009 alone it declined from 50,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs. At this rate, there will be no African penguins, outside of aquariums perhaps, within a decade.

In a book that is as big, messy, and heartrending as the rescue itself, deNapoli asks how wildlife rescue volunteers can “look into the innocent faces of thousands of oiled, injured and dying animals for years on end without falling into a deep pit of despair, hopelessness and anger.” Perhaps our earth would be a better place if those employed in the oil and shipping industries were required to become wildlife rescuers themselves, whenever their oil spills into the sea. They might then be forced to ask themselves some fundamental questions about the nature of their business.

This Issue

October 28, 2010