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When the MS Oliva slammed into Nightingale Island on Wednesday, March 16th, spilling 300,000 gallons of fuel oil that oiled thousands of endangered penguins, one would have thought the world would have stood up and taken notice. But this tiny island, which is part of the Tristan da Cunha island group lying halfway between South Africa and South America, is so small and so remote that most people have never even heard of it. There are no people living on this 1.5 square mile speck of land – however, Nightingale and the few other tiny islands that make up this island group are inhabited by millions of seabirds, including the Northern Rockhopper penguin. Nearby Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited island on the planet – just 265 people live there.

Map of Tristan da Cunha islands

Map of Tristan da Cunha islands

Perhaps if this oil spill had occurred in a more populated region, more people would have heard about it. Or, for those of us living in the US, if the spill had occurred in US waters, it might have been in our newspapers and on our nightly news. Perhaps if there were not other earth-shattering events occurring at the same time (Japan, Libya, etc), news of this environmental disaster would have made it into the headlines. Perhaps if it was a story about people or a war, and not about a bunch of birds, it might have attracted the attention of mainstream media. Perhaps. But it was none of these things – and so it has been eclipsed by other ‘more important’ news stories.

But that finally changed this weekend, when the story was picked up by a few major news outlets – in particular CNN, who ran the story yesterday on their website and television network. This headline ran on their website on April 3rd: Penguin rescue operation under way after South Atlantic oil spill.

We have Dr. David Guggenheim (the Ocean Doctor) to thank for making this happen. Dr. Guggenheim just happened to be on a ship travelling to Tristan da Cunha when this oil spill occurred. It had been his life-long dream – since the age of eleven – to see penguins in the wild. He could never have imagined that, instead of seeing lively Rockhoppers bouncing from rock to rock, he would see them hunkered down by the shoreline, their bodies encased in thick, black oil. Even the plumes of feathers above their eyes that are normally bright yellow and partially erect, were solid black and plastered to the sides of their heads.

 

Heavily oiled Rockhopper penguin on Nightingale Island. Photo by Andrew Evans
Oiled Rockhopper penguin on Nightingale Island. Photo by Andrew Evans

On his journey throughout the southern oceans, Dr. Guggenheim had been regularly blogging and video conferencing with students in their classrooms. Had he not been at Tristan da Cunha at just the right time, with just the right technology, and just the right passion for our oceans, we still might not know about the MS Oliva oil spill and its impact on the penguins and other animals there. Also fortuitously – or miraculously, some might say – the crew of the ship he was travelling on (the Prince Albert II) had been trained in high-seas rescues, and they were able to rescue the 22-man crew from the MS Oliva before it broke apart and sank.

Prince Albert II crew members rescuing crew from the MS Oliva. Photo by Kristine Hannon

Prince Albert II crew members rescuing crew from the MS Oliva. Photo by Kristine Hannon

Because Dr. Guggenheim was on the scene and began posting about it right away, word began to spread about this latest penguin crisis. At least in online communities. Were it not for social media, who knows how long it might have been before we learned of it here in the states, or in other parts of the world. And yesterday afternoon – at long last – CNN interviewed Dr. Guggenheim about the oil spill on one of their international news programs. The clip from that broadcast can be seen here: Dr. David Guggenheim on CNN.

Now, perhaps, more media outlets will take notice. And we need them to. Although the ship’s insurers will eventually be forced to pay for the rescue efforts, until then, rescue workers on the islands are in desperate need of supplies and funding. Just 100 islanders and a few penguin specialists are caring for thousands of penguins that have been rescued from the oil spill. Of the estimated 10,000-20,000 penguins that have been oiled, a few thousand have been captured. The size and scope of the task they face is truly daunting. You can help the islanders save their penguins by making a donation through one of the organizations listed below. All of the funds raised go directly to the islands to support the penguin rescue effort currently underway.

Rescue worker feeding Rockhopper penguin at Tristan. Photo via CNN

Rescue worker feeding Rockhopper penguin at Tristan. Photo via CNN

The Ocean Foundation fundraiser (set up by the Ocean Doctor): Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund

Crowdrise fundraiser (set up by Sandra Birnhak, Director of the Foundation for Antarctic Research): Catastrophic Oil Spill – Tristan

RSPB fundraiser (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds): Nightingale Island Emergency Appeal

Please donate as generously as you can! These penguins were just declared an endangered species in 2008, and your help is needed to keep their fragile population viable. I will be posting another update about the current state of the rescue effort – but for now, you can learn more by reading the CNN article.

Thank you!

Dyan deNapoli (The Penguin Lady) – Penguin expert and author of The Great Penguin Rescue

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