20 Years Ago AFRICAN PENGUIN RESCUE OPERATION 3

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MV Treasure Disaster

 This year, June 2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of the largest penguin rescue operation in history. It was on 23 June 2000, that the Chinese bulk ore carrier MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa, in Table Bay, between Dassen and Robben Islands, which supports the largest colonies of African penguins in the world. MV Treasure spilled over 1,300 tonnes of bunker oil which oiled thousands of penguins on and around these islands.

 

MV Apollo Sea Sinking

 6 Years before with the oil spill from MV Treasure, we had faced what was, up till then, the worst oil spill off the shores of the Cape, endangering penguins, with the sinking of the MV Apollo Sea in a storm in June 1994. Almost 10,000 African penguins, most on Dassen Island, were oiled from the sinking of MV Apollo Sea.

 

Emergency Mobilisation

Like many other Capetonians, I recruited all the friends I could and mobilised staff from our mission office in Rondebosch to head over to SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), to volunteer and help with the cleaning and feeding of oiled penguins as best we could. Many were clearly emaciated and dangerously underweight. The oil was life threatening on many levels. It polluted their food and water necessary for nutrition and hydration. If they imbibed any oil, it was poison to their system. The oil also undermined their natural waterproofing and brought on the risk of being waterlogged, resulting in hyperthermia. They had to be cleaned. Many needed medicines and they all needed food.

 

20 Years Ago AFRICAN PENGUIN RESCUE OPERATION 2Introduction to Feisty Penguins

The SANCCOB facilities in Table View were overflowing and struggling to cope with the influx of so many thousands of these precious sea birds, many of them who looked in a pitiful state, covered in life-threatening oil. At that stage, in 1994, I had never before handled penguins. Like many others, I was quite surprised at what feisty little creatures they are, nor had I been aware how strong their flippers were. We soon learnt to respect these little birds, who, swimming as they do amongst seals, sharks and whales, did not evidence any fear of people. They had their self-respect. They complained audibly at being manhandled and took bites at us with their sharp beaks.

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Undermanned, Underfunded and Underequipped

We had little training and orientation and no protective gear to speak of. Our first task was to clean the oiled penguins. To achieve this, we had buckets, sunlight liquid detergent and brushes to help us scrub off the oil. After a while, we worked out a pattern: One of us would clean a penguin and another would rinse them in a separate bucket. There were nowhere near enough buckets, nor volunteers and far less access to hosepipes, or taps.

 

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How to Feed a Penguin

Once cleaned, our next priority was to feed these poor little birds. It took quite some time and practise to learn how to open their beaks with one hand, nice and wide, by using finger and thumb just behind the jaw line and the other hand to correctly position the fish for them to be able to swallow. If we did it wrong, the fish could be spoiled, as penguins are not scavengers and will not pick up torn pieces of fish from the ground. They had to be hand-fed.

 

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How to Give Medicine to a Penguin

After several attempts to introduce medicines down the throats of penguins unsuccessfully, one of our people pointed out that the best way was to simply place the tablets in the mouth of one of the fish and then to feed them the fish! I wished I had thought of that myself! It certainly worked like a charm.

 

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Beware of Slippery Sardines

At one point, having dropped a fish on the ground and leaning forward to pick it up, I received a sharp peck on the cheek from a feisty little penguin, who took the advantage of me lowering my head to within range of his beak. Just to remind me that he still had his self-respect and was not taking all this manhandling passively! Considering how close that peck was to my eyes, I realised that some eye protection goggles would be a nice addition to any future penguin rescue operation.

 

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A Sense of Failure

While we were very grateful to have collectively saved over 4,700 penguins who were rehabilitated, restored to good health and released back into the wild, we lost almost as many penguins, probably due to our very inexperience and lack of training, inadequate facilities and very limited resources. There was a great sense of having been overwhelmed and I could not help the feeling that we should have done much better.

 

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In the Face of Environmental Disaster

In June 2000, with the sinking of the MV Treasure, in Table Bay, we had the chance to put into practise all that had been learned back in 1994 with the MV Apollo Sea oil spill. Like many thousands of other Capetonians, I, my daughters and numbers of our staff, headed off to SANCCOB to volunteer our time to rescue and rehabilitate a much larger number of penguins, oiled and endangered in this latest sea disaster.

 

International Operation to Save Sea Birds

With the many lessons learned since the 1994 MV Apollo Sea penguin rescue, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) worked together with an international team, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and others, to rescue and rehabilitate the endangered birds.

 

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The Worst Environmental Disaster in South African History

MV Treasure, although Panamanian registered, was owned by a Chinese shipping company, Universal Pearls, that apparently also owned MV Apollo Sea, which had caused so much environmental damage in 1994. Reportedly, MV Treasure had an 18-metere wide hole in its hull, due to “metal fatigue”! The authorities had wanted to tow the ship into the Cape Town harbour for repair, but many were warning well beforehand that the ship was too large for the manoeuvre, which proved to be so. The oil that was spilled from MV Treasure was of the heaviest and most vicious commercial fuels that can be obtained from petroleum. Bunker oil, also known as fuel oil, is what remains after lighter fractions (gasoline, kerosene and diesel) are removed by distillation. The hideous materials in crude petroleum are not distilled, as the boiling point is too high to be conveniently recovered. As a result, bunker oil is very dark in colour, far denser and a significantly more serious contaminant than other less dense oils. MV Treasure’s bunker oil spill was described at the time as “the worst environmental disaster in South Africa’s history,” particularly as it seriously threatened the African penguin breeding grounds, Robben Island and Dassen Island. At that time, the Robben Island Nature Reserve was home to about 14,000 African penguins and 6,000 African penguin chicks.

 

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Desperate Measures by Divers to Limit the Damage

Divers confirmed that the ship had suffered structural damage and that oil was rising from cracks in the hull. The engine room vents leaked a steady stream of oil. These were closed off by divers, drastically reducing the amount of oil polluting the surface. The dive team continued to seal off oil leakages from the wreck. Within 3 days of the sinking, the dive team had sealed off all leaks from the ship.

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Cleaning up the Ocean and the Beaches

The clean-up included workers loading kelp covered in oil, into trucks and vacuuming up pools of oil with specially designed vacuums. In addition, booms were used to keep the oil from entering Cape Town harbour. The South African company Bio-Matrix was contracted to help clean up the oil slick, which was polluting the penguin’s habitat. This product soaks up oil and encapsulates oil without absorbing water. It also is effective in breaking down and digesting oil.

 

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Massive Rescue Operation

Over 40,000 African penguins were endangered. Within 10 days of the MV Treasure spill, over 20,000 oiled African penguins (mostly from Robben Island) had been admitted into the rehabilitation centre, a massive warehouse in Observatory, filled with portable pools. Here the volunteers were mobilised to clean and feed the oiled birds. The huge railway warehouse, secured to use as the Rehabilitation Centre, covered over 5 acres of covered space and an additional six acres outside was used for pens and pools to house the birds once they had been cleaned, to enable them to build up their natural waterproofing before being released back into the wild. More than 3,000 orphaned chicks were collected for artificial rearing. There were also a number of cormorants, sea gulls and other shore birds, who were rescued, although far less of them were impacted. 400 tonnes of fish were fed to the birds. Some days as much as 10 tonnes. 7,000 tonnes of beach sand were brought in for the bird pens and 7,600 litres of detergent were used.

 

 

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Conscripted to Care

During the oil spill crisis, my sister-in-law, Deborah, arrived from Salzburg, Austria. This was her first visit to South Africa. As I collected her from the airport, I explained: “Debbie, we have a crisis. We need to go and rescue penguins.” There was no hesitation on her side and soon Professor Deborah Pelzmann was dressed in yellow oilskins, scrubbing penguins and an effective part of the international team of volunteers in the railway warehouse in Observatory.

 

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An Austrian’s Introduction to Africa

My Sister in Law recalls: “I specifically remember how well organised the feeding was. Each volunteer group (mostly three people) was in a pen with two 

smaller pens to the left and right. One of the smaller pens housed approximately twenty hungry penguins. We had to pick a penguin up in the correct manner 

(keeping your chin up and eyes out of the way of his beak) and position the animal between your legs (keeping your ankles crossed), efficiently keeping the wings pinned between your knees so that they could not be damaged. We had to feed each penguin six fish at each feeding. Three fish with medicine and three without. That done, the penguin was then carefully put in the other smaller pen so one could keep track of which had been fed and which had not. Each volunteer had to keep calm, collected and mostly quiet, giving the animals a sense of security and not adding to their stress.

 

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“I also remember almost every grocery store in Cape Town had a storage bin into which people could donate towels to help clean the animals.

 

“What a fabulous experience it was, not to be missed!!!! Thank you Peter!!!!!

 

“The down side? I remember Peter’s car reeking of fish!!!”

 

 

Relocation Operation

An additional 19,500 penguins on Dassen Island, who were in danger of being oiled, were captured before the oil had reached them. These were transported up the coast to Port Elizabeth, 800km to the East of Cape Town and there released into the ocean to swim back to their homes. They were therefore able to feed themselves in the wild, while swimming back to the Cape and this greatly relieved the logistical challenges on the cleaning up teams. Three penguins, name Peter, Percy and Pamela were fitted with transmitters to monitor their progress.

 

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An Army of Volunteers

The Rehabilitation operation lasted for over 3 months. It was the largest penguin rescue in history. Over 130 international team members supervised over 45,000 volunteers.

 

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Outstanding Success

The success of the great penguin rescue of June-September 2000, was due to many factors. The lessons learned since 1994, the large number of volunteers, including international experts in sea bird rescue, improved transport for penguins, the rapid arrival at rescue centres of those trained and capable of administering emergency care. Of all the penguins caught, rehabilitated and reintroduced into the wild, the mortality rate was less than it would have been if they had been in the wild, during normal circumstances.

 

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Cape Town’s Finest Hour

I was never prouder of being a Capetonian than witnessing the massive outpouring of concern and practical help of so many in the community, to save our African penguins. Without any government help, people from all walks of life donated their time and resources in order to ensure that the penguins were rescued, cleaned, fed and that, by the time they were released back into the wild, the beaches were cleaned and the penguins were safe. The day that the first batch of penguins was released back into Table Bay was one of the most joyful moments in my life! We had done it!

 

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SANCCOB’s Premier Role

 

SANCCOB had proved to be the premier international rehabilitation centre for penguins and had co-ordinated the most successful operation of rescuing penguins from an oil spill disaster in history. The well thought through strategy of capturing, washing and rehabilitation of already oiled birds and capturing non-oiled birds as a pre-emptive measure and relocating them far up the coast so that we had time to rehabilitate their breeding grounds before they returned, was inspired, practical and it worked.

 

 

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Magnificent Achievement

The achievements of SANCCOB, IFAW and WWF and the many thousands of volunteers, not only from Cape Town, but from literally across the world, was absolutely magnificent. The worst ecological disaster in South Africa’s history was decisively dealt with. The African penguins were effectively rescued and the damaged environments were speedily cleaned up, before the first penguins who had been transported up to Port Elizabeth could arrive back at their homes in Table Bay.

 

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Hope for the Future

We look forward to the day when fossil fuels such as petroleum are replaced by cleaner, safer and more environmentally friendly forms of energy and we look forward to far stricter regulation of the seaways to deal with those who irresponsibly and carelessly pollute it.

 

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Congratulations!

 

As we approach the 20th anniversary of this historic penguin rescue, Congratulations to SANCCOB and Well Done to all those who were involved in this massive effort and to those who continue to rescue and care for sea birds in Southern Africa. “A righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Proverbs 12:10

 

Dr. Peter Hammond

 

Frontline Fellowship

 

Penguin Rescue email banner 2P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725

 

Cape Town South Africa

 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

www.FrontlineMissionSA.org

 

www.TheBibleandAnimals.org

 

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To contact SANCCOB write to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or visit www.sanccob.co.za, or Tel: 021-557-6155. Emergency After Hours Tel: 021-786-383-731.

See also:

Canned Lion Hunting – A National Disgrace

The Bible and Animals

Will Animals be in Heaven?

Corruption Undermines Rhino Conservation

Rhinos, Poaching and Conservation

Marvels of Creation and Science

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