Even though, thankfully, there have been no major oil spills along the coast of South Africa in a long time, we still get the occasional oiled penguin admitted at SANCCOB. This week four of them arrived, hungry, tired, and very, very angry.
Oil is a danger to marine animals and penguins in particular for numerous reasons. First, the oil sticks to their feathers and clumps them together so they're no longer waterproof. Oiled penguins get cold that much faster when they try to swim in the ocean, and venture back to land. As a result they don't go out looking for food and often starve to death. Oiled parents can't feed their chicks either. The oil also gets into their digestive systems and causes ulcers and bleeding. It's a bad, bad thing all around and it only takes a little bit of oil to cause problems for these little guys. The ones that came in this week were completely covered, from head to tail, flippers and all.
Our mission at SANCCOB, first of all, is to make the birds as healthy and strong as we can before washing them. They may get fish and rehydration fluids for a few days before bird meets soap, but we try to get them clean and healthy as soon as possible. Once they're strong, they get washed. First they're sprayed with another light oil that will help disperse the dirty crude oil that they're covered in. Then the real bathing begins, and I had the honour of participating in this week's washing session. It was one of the most specific, grueling, and meticulous things I've ever seen. It took us three hours to wash four birds; imagine the thousands that had to be washed after The Treasure spill of 2000!
The birds are partially immersed in a basin of warm water and a specific detergent known as BD-1, which was developed here in South Africa. One person holds the bird still, or as still as possible given the circumstances, and the other scrubs the bird with his or her hands. The head and flippers are scrubbed with a toothbrush. When the bathwater is too dirty, it is changed. All in all, some birds need four to ten water changes before they're pronounced oil-free.
This is when the rinsing process begins. One person holds the bird still, again, while another rinses all of the soap off with a hose. It's a very counterintuitive process, because the longer you rinse, the drier the underlying feathers become. Rinsing the penguin isn't complete until the feathers are completely dry underneath, while at the same time the two rinsers get completely wet. This takes about 20 minutes per bird, while the scrubbing takes 30 minutes or more, depending on how oiled the bird is.
The rinsers give the penguin a good second check to ensure that all traces of oil were indeed removed. At this point, rehydration fluids are given again and the bird is left to rest and recover from the hour-long struggle that he's given us. If only they knew we were helping them, maybe they wouldn't struggle so much! After washing, the penguins are gleaming white, cleaner than they have ever been in their entire lives.
After washing, the birds will stay for another one or two weeks to gain more strength and put weight on after days of not eating while oiled. Once they're healthy, they are released to their colony on nearby Robben Island.
Yesterday afternoon, BG and I got to partake in a release trip for 11 young penguins. These ones were not oiled, thankfully, but were at SANCCOB for various other reasons, and were going home! We crated them up with their breasts painted bright pink for easy identification. Then we boarded the boat and headed out into the deep ocean. It was a beautiful day to go home.
BG lost the coin-toss and had to stay aboard the boat while I got to go down to the water to release the little ones. It was such a special moment, tender even, releasing the penguins into the ocean for the first taste of freedom they'd had in a long time, perhaps ever, if they were reared in captivity. They huddled together at first, bewildered at the vast expanse of water before them, but then started to make their way towards land and their new homes on the beach at Robben Island. Some of these penguins we have been feeding and caring for for nearly four weeks already, and we have watched them grow enormously and go from the bottom of the pecking order to the top. We can say that we've helped these little penguins get a boost in life, sending them back home with some extra fish in their bellies and a bit of extra love.
It was a great day for penguins, and a great day for us.