Twenty percent of the world’s northern rockhopper penguins are now coated in oil. On March 16, the freighter MS Olivia, shipping soya beans from Brazil to Asia, crashed into the remote British island Nightingale and the nearby Tristan da Cunha, causing roughly 1,600 tons of oil to spill in an eight-mile slick upon the pristine, unpolluted home of half of the world’s northern rockhopper penguin population. The northern rockhopper penguin gained new fame from the character “Lovelace” in the popular 2006 animated film Happy Feet.
Nightingale Island, which is so remote it counts South Africa at 1,000 miles away as its closest neighbor, is a vital breeding ground for the penguin, which has been listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Up to 60% of the penguin’s population could be affected by the spill, according to Venessa Strauss, Chief Financial Officer of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. But with no landing strip for aircraft, the only hope for recovering oil-covered rockhoppers lies in rescue crews coming by ship from South Africa, a journey that, with speed, takes four days. “The biggest concern at the moment is the delay in the response,” Strauss said. “The longer before we get on the ground and get ourselves sorted out, the more chance we have of losing birds.”
In the meantime, the penguins attempt to clean their oil-slicked feathers themselves, in turn ingesting the poisonous fuel. A crew of about a dozen from South Africa arrived on Nightingale four days after the spill, and when Andrew Evans of National Geographic arrived on March 23, over 750 oil-covered penguins had been recovered to be cleaned. The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) now estimates over 1,200 birds have been recovered by the small rescue crew.
But that still leaves many more penguins struggling to survive on the island. Sean Burns, the island’s administrator, reported that rehabilitation efforts have been hampered by a lack of cleaning supplies and equipment. “A crucial next step is to confirm a second vessel to depart from Cape Town in the next few days with all the necessary equipment and supplies to clean up the birds, keep them healthy and hopefully return them to the ocean,” Mr. Burns said in a statement last week. “It will be a race against time.”
The race for survival continues as the much needed second vessel, the Singapore, departs from Cape Town this Monday, March 28. Set to arrive on the island April 2, five days later, the Singapore will provide frozen fish to feed recovered penguins, as well as proper equipment and medicine needed for continuing rescue efforts. The vessel will also provide rodent traps for rats believed to have escaped from the MS Olivia, who may be eating bird eggs on the island, adding further damage to the northern rockhopper penguin’s already struggling population.