Posts Tagged ‘penguins’

For the last several days, I’ve been closely following the reports of the oil spill that occurred following the grounding of the Greek-managed carrier MS Oliva at Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha territory. For those just reading about this devastating ecological disaster for the first time, this small group of islands, smack dab in the middle of the Southern Atlantic ocean, is home to most of the world’s population of Endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins, as well as millions of other seabirds, including the endangered Speckled petrel. For reasons not yet known, the Oliva was miles off course when it steamed full ahead into the island in the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 16th. Half of the ship’s crew was removed that day and the rest of the crew was rescued on the 17th. Oil first appeared in the water on the morning of Thursday, March 17th.

MS Oliva grounded at Nightingale Island near Tristan da Cunha

MS Oliva grounded at Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha. Photo by Andy Repetto

On Friday, March 18th, the ship broke in two in the rough seas, with more oil leaking from the damaged hull. By this point, the oil had surrounded Nightingale Island, where approximately 20,000 Northern Rockhopper penguins are just completing their annual molts. By the next morning, Saturday, March 19th, oil had been spotted up to eight miles offshore, and scores of heavily oiled penguins were coming ashore. By yesterday, Sunday, March 20th, the oil had hit Inaccessible Island, and hundreds more heavily oiled penguins were spotted by local conservation officials. This part of the world is home to approximately 200,000 Endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins. Because they are just finishing molting, the birds are already underweight (they fast while replacing their feathers during their 2-3 week molt), and they are now taking to the sea again to hunt for food.

Heavily oiled Northern Rockhopper penguin at Nightingale Island. Photo by Tristan Conservation Team

Heavily oiled Northern Rockhopper penguin at Nightingale Island. Photo by Tristan Conservation Team

Tragically, this small group of islands is incredibly remote, making a large-scale rescue effort extremely challenging. There is not even a landing strip for airplanes, so the only way to reach the islands is by ship. The closest landmass is South Africa, some 1,700 miles away (to the East). The next closest continent is South America, some 2,300 miles to the West. The voyage to Tristan da Cunha from South Africa takes 4-7 days, depending on the vessel and the weather. There will undoubtedly be tens of thousands of penguins, as well as thousands of other seabirds, oiled in this spill. Getting the necessary resources, as well as enough people to care for the birds out to these islands will prove to be a superhuman endeavor.

Group of oiled Rockhopper penguins at Nightingale Island. Photo by Tristan Conservation Team

Group of oiled Rockhopper penguins at Nightingale Island. Photo by Tristan Conservation Team

A bit of hopeful news – a salvage tug, the Smit Amandla, is due to arrive from Cape Town today, and Estelle van der Merwe, whom I worked under during the massive penguin rescue effort that took place following the Treasure oil spill in South Africa, is onboard. Under her strong leadership, nearly 40,000 African penguins were saved during the Treasure oil spill rescue. Estelle will serve as an advisor to the Tristan da Cunha conservation officials. But the rescue effort at Tristan will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge ever faced by even the most seasoned wildlife rescue professionals.

To follow the daily reports on this oil spill, check the websites listed below. I will also be posting daily updates on my Facebook page.

The Penguin Lady on Facebook

Tristan da Cunha’s official website

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)

The Ocean Doctor’s website

SANCCOB’s website


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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.

African penguin oiled during Treasure oil spill. Photo by Les Underhill, ADU

African penguin oiled during Treasure oil spill. Photo by Les Underhill, ADU

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.

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