A devastating oil spill has occurred off Nightingale Island at Tristan da Cunha, home to the world’s largest population of the endangered Northern Rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi). Declared an endangered species in 2008, most of the population inhabits this remote island – other islands in the area are home to smaller colonies of this penguin species. In the last census in the 1970’s, there were approximately 125,000 pairs of Northern Rockhoppers. Although an official count has not been taken since then, researcher’s observations suggest the population has fallen in the years since.
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 16th, a bulk carrier named the MS Oliva ran aground just off the coast of Nightingale Island, which is also home to several other seabird species, including the Endangered Speckled petrel. The ship was carrying more than 300,000 gallons of heavy marine oil and 15,000 gallons of diesel (both used as fuel), and that oil is now leaking into the surrounding waters. There are unconfirmed reports of oiled birds coming ashore, and some dead birds have also been reported.
Mounting a rescue effort will take a herculean effort due to the extreme remoteness of this island. There are fewer than 300 residents on Tristan da Cunha and – to the best of my knowledge – there is no wildlife rescue center there. We can only wait and see what the conservation agencies in the area and international wildlife rescue groups can tell us about the possibility of a rescue effort to save the oiled and soon-to-be-oiled penguins. Sadly, without human intervention, these seabirds stand little chance of survival, and tens of thousands could be lost.
I am just heartbroken by this news, and cannot help thinking about the thousands of African penguins that were oiled during the Treasure oil spill in South Africa close to eleven years ago. Walking into that dark, dusty warehouse in Cape Town and being confronted by thousands of oil-covered, traumatized penguins was devastating. Some of the volunteers who arrived to help us care for the penguins were just too upset by the sight of the oiled birds, and could not return to the rescue centers. Thankfully, more than 12,500 dedicated volunteers were up to the task, and we ultimately saved 90% of the 19,000 oiled penguins. Sadly, the Northern Rockhoppers and other birds at Tristan da Cunha are far less likely to be saved by a similar response.
The one possible bright spot is that many of the penguins are currently molting, which means they may not be taking to the sea at this time. Penguins can’t enter the cold waters to hunt while replacing all of their feathers during their annual molt, so they live off of stored fat reserves during this physiologically stressful period. The molt typically takes 2-3 weeks, so one can only hope that the oil spill has been cleaned up by the time most of the birds have finished their molts.
For more on this developing story, visit the Ocean Doctor’s website. I will also post updates and official reports as I learn of them.