Penguins in South Africa rescued after 400 liters of oil spilled during refueling

Oil-slicked penguins were rescued after a spill off the coast of South Africa. (Courtesy of SANCCOB)
Oil-slicked penguins were rescued after a spill off the coast of South Africa. (Courtesy of SANCCOB)

More than 100 oiled penguins and other seabirds are being cleaned in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, after an oil spill off the coast earlier this month.

Nearly 400 liters of oil were spilled by a Liberian vessel on July 6 near islands in Algoa Bay that are home to the largest breeding colony of endangered African penguins. The accident occurred during the ship refueling process, or bunkering, and is the second spill to hit the area in three years.

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a seabird rehabilitation nonprofit, is currently treating 87 African penguins, nine African penguin chicks, four Cape cormorants and nine Cape gannets from St. Croix and Bird islands, Stacey Webb, the organisation’s Eastern Cape manager, told France 24 Observers. Five penguin eggs were also brought in but did not survive.

“The oil completely destroys the feather waterproofing process”

The first batch of birds were oiled on 90 to 100 percent of their body. For the last batch, it was around 40 to 50 percent.

The birds are often hypothermic and dehydrated when they’re brought in. So we warm them up and stabilise them, and begin the washing process. Fuel oil is sticky and dry, so we apply canola oil, which helps loosen the fuel oil and makes it easier to get off. We wash them using toothbrushes and soap, since their feathers are delicate and we don’t want to brush them with our fingers, and then we do another light wash and rinse them. We try to limit the process to 20 minutes because it’s stressful for the birds: they’ve been taken out of their island and they don’t want to be handled by people.

We take them into the rehabilitation area to swim, and they’re allowed to get out when they like. We start with swimming 10 minutes at a time, three times a day, then we wait a week and move up to 20 minutes, then an hour.

The oil completely destroys the feather waterproofing process. If we were to release them immediately, they’d just shiver on the bay. Even if a small area the size of a dollar coin is not waterproof, water seeps in and gets right into the down and into the entire body. It’s like when you dip a corner of a towel in water, and the water seeps into the rest of the towel.

We should finish washing all the birds tomorrow, and we expect another four weeks minimum of the swimming and waterproofing process before we can release them. Human contact is limited so that they can rejoin the colony naturally.

There’s a lot of bunkering happening in this area. There used to be one spill every year, and this is the first since 2016, so we’ve been lucky. But this is a breeding colony, and one spill could wipe them out. We’ve been in discussions with interested parties about risk assessments, and it’s extremely important that an oil and wildlife contingency plan be put into play. Lots of bunkering occurs, but there’s a better place than right next to the bay.

There are around 15,000 breeding African penguins in the Algoa Bay, Webb added. The species was classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species in 2013. The “endangered” category precedes the “critically endangered” classification.

Around 100 seabirds were treated after an oil spill in the bay in 2016. Algoa Bay, which sits on a busy international shipping route, was opened up to bunkering that year in an effort to boost the region’s economy. Bunkering allows ships to save money by refueling without entering a port.

But the increased ship activity has drawn concern from environmental and tourism groups, which point to the high risks for the region’s wildlife populations.

This story was written by Jenny Che.