As scientists investigate whether the BP oil disaster contributed to an unexplained die-off of dolphins and sea turtles in the Gulf, another oil disaster is underway thousands of miles away in the middle of South Atlantic.
Tens of thousands of critically endangered Rockhopper Penguins are threatened by a disastrous shipwreck on March 16 that dumped about 300,000 gallons of heavy marine oil into their pristine habitat on Nightingale Island, part of a small chain of islands that are home to the second largest concentration of seabirds in the world.
The ship's oil has completely encircled two critical penguin island habitats, including a World Heritage Site. The penguins have recently been molting and are trying to get back in the water, according to Dr. David Guggenheim, a marine biologist who witnessed the crew's rescue before the ship sank.
"It couldn't have come at a worst time," Guggenheim says. "The penguins are hungry and eager to get back in the water. But that's the worst thing they could do, because they are surrounded by oil."
Guggenheim was on an environmental expedition on the ship Princess Albert II, which fortunately was near the wreck at the time. The marine biologist says the thick fuel oil poured out of the cargo ship and ruined the zodiac boats that rescued the crew as their ship crashed against the rocks.
Oiled Rockhopper Penguins on Nightingale Island Photos: Trevor Glass
Oiled seas during rescue of the Oliva crew Photo: Kristine Hannon
Now attention has turned to protecting the Rockhopper Penguins and thousands of other threatened birds. Locals from the nearby island of Tristan de Cuna, a tiny British territory halfway between Argentina and South Africa, are collecting thousands of penguins, many of them soaked in oil, and housing them in a drained indoor community pool.
Feeding them has become a major problem since 150 island residents barely have enough food to give them. Guggenheim says the islanders have emptied their freezers of seafood and are trying to catch fish to keep the birds alive until they can be moved to a safer location. He says a small team of rescuers are now trying to capture more penguins on the two oil-encircled islands before they get tarred with thick crude that can be lethal to marine life.
The Malta-flagged cargo vessel, the Oliva, was carrying soybeans and fuel oil traveling from Brazil to Singapore. There still are plenty of questions about how the ship ended up here, Guggenheim says. "How the captain of a ship could crash into one of the most remote archipelagoes of the world far away from shipping lanes is a mystery to me."
Guggenheim, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation in Washington DC, has set up a Nightingale Island disaster website to raise money to help rescue the penguins and other sea life threatening this environmental treasure.
There is no airport or landing strip on the islands and the nearest port in Cape Town is a five-day voyage. Guggenheim says they are trying to arrange for a ship to bring a helicopter out to the islands to assist with the rescue.