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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rare Penguins Endangered By Oil Spill On Remote Island

Air Date: Week of

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins at Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

A freighter ran aground in the middle of the South Atlantic and is leaking oil on a remote place where many rare birds live. Marine biologist David Guggenheim was aboard a luxury eco-tourist ship when they got the mayday call from the sinking ship. Guggenheim tells host Bruce Gellerman about the harrowing rescue at sea and how even a small amount of oil spilled in a remote part of the world can have a devastating impact on wildlife.


GELLERMAN: Earlier this month the Greek freighter, Oliva, carrying a hull full of soy-beans, was heading from Brazil to the Philippines. Suddenly, just before dawn, disaster struck. The cargo ship hit a rock, and began taking on water. The captain issued a mayday.

TAPE: …Water in your engine room. Yes, Yes…

GELLERMAN: Close to the sinking ship was the Prince Albert 2 - a luxury liner carrying eco-tourists. Ship and crew helped save those still aboard the doomed Oliva. On the Prince Albert, as guest ecologist, was David Guggenheim, also known as the Ocean Doctor.

Dr Guggenheim recorded the drama and the ecological disaster that followed. We reached him by sat. phone as the Prince Albert was leaving the island where the freighter ran aground in this inaccessible part of the South Atlantic.

Tristan da Cunha is 2,088 miles from the nearest land in South America and 1,750 miles from South Africa. It is considered the most remote inhabited location on Earth. (Googlemaps)

GUGGENHEIM: In fact Tristan da Cunha is considered the most remote inhabited island in the world, so we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. These islands are unique. They harbor some of the most magnificent birdlife. It’s the second highest concentration of seabirds in the world - and talk about the most remote possible place to run your ship aground… it’s still a great mystery of how this could have possibly happened.

TAPE: We can see this huge hole in the side of the ship just now.

GELLERMAN: As it happened, the crew aboard Prince Albert 2 was trained exactly for this type of rescue. Teams set off with inflatable Zodiacs to inspect the ill-fated freighter.

TAPE: Right above there - it’s a massive hole.

GUGGENHEIM: And our rescue team came back and people were feeling the effects of just being out there for an hour or two with oil around.

GELLERMAN: The Oliva was hemorrhaging oil, onboard - 300,000 gallons of heavy marine fuel - enough for a voyage half way around the world.

TAPE: Massive amounts, that’s a lot of oil - absolutely covered in oil.

GELLERMAN: It was all hands on deck - not a moment to lose.

GUGGENHEIM: Robin West, the head of the expedition team, is right here and he really played the lead role in the rescue and the rest of us watched in awe from the ship, and I’ll put Robin on to talk to you about it.

WEST: Hello?

GELLERMAN: Hi Robin, it’s Bruce in Boston with Living on Earth.

WEST: Yes, hi Bruce, how are you?

GELLERMAN: I’m well, but tell me about this rescue! You wound up saving how many members of the crew of this cargo ship?

WEST: Uh, ten. The ship itself was pretty much very close to the shoreline, a rock had punched a hole through the side of the ship and it was rolling and moving on that rock, and the big fear was that the ship was going to tear into two and break up quite quickly. And so we had a small window of opportunity to get them off the ship. We went ahead and launched three of our Zodiacs to grab guys and bring them into the boat. And we in fact managed to do it.

TAPE: Thank you very much. I understand everybody is in Zodiacs now, right?/ Yes, that’s correct./ Thank you very, very much Captain - you must also thank your team there very, very well done, over./ Thank you, we will do so, of course, thank you.

GELLERMAN: The ship sank, didn’t it?

WEST: Uh, yeah, that’s correct. Eight hours later, at two o’clock in the morning, it tore into two pieces. On the side closest to where the shore side was, a lot of the oil had poured out and was trapped in that area.

Freighter "Oliva" breaking apart on Nightingale Island (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

TAPE: It’s like heavy fuel oil, black and it smells heavily. Try to avoid it so nobody gets it in their eyes.….

GELLERMAN: What a mess!

WEST: It is a very big mess. There’s obviously a very, very large concern that heavy diesel and that heavy oil will be there for a very, very long time.

GELLERMAN: Well, Robin West, great job! Nice going! Can I speak to Dr. Guggenheim again?

WEST: Yes, I’ll pass him on to you - thank you very much, Bruce.


GELLERMAN: Boy, Dr. Guggenheim, what a high adventure on the high seas!

GUGGENHEIM: Well, it is. It’s just been the expedition of my life. And unfortunately, as great of an event as that was - there wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate because we realized that there was much more oil in the water than we had thought there was the last time we had seen the ship. And when I went ashore, finally at Tristan da Cunha, finally, two days later - we had to wait for the weather to clear - I met with the local head of the Department of Conservation, Trevor Glass, who told me that the oil had since enveloped the island.

GUGGENHEIM (TO GLASS): You said that oil is now all the way around Nightingale island?

GLASS: Yes. All the way around us. The whole way around Nightingale Island - and you can smell it - the seals - the boys say the seals are acting very strange. Some are full of oil when they come up also.

GUGGENHEIM: And you said half of - or your team said half of the penguins - are…

GLASS: Half of the penguins are coming up full of oil - their feathers are totally black.

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins at Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

GUGGENHEIM: You know, if you had to pick the worst place to spill the oil - it really demonstrates that you don’t need a supertanker, or even a small oil tanker to create an environmental catastrophe.

GELLERMAN: Some of these birds are very, very rare.

GUGGENHEIM: That’s exactly right. In fact, the Spectacled Petrel is found only on the neighboring Inaccessible Island, and we found out that oil had reach Inaccessible Island, and the Northern Rock Hopper Penguin, half of the population is found right here in the Tristan Island Group.

There’s also another bird that’s only found in this area, there’s only 50 nesting pairs, which is called the Tristan Bunting. Highly endangered. And again, you know, very, very vulnerable to this sort of spill.

GELLERMAN: So what happens now to this remote, ecologically unique area? What can be done? Can anything be done?

GUGGENHEIM: Well, we’re doing what we can. And we just - we can only hope that it’s within enough time - there’s no airstrip so logistics are terrible. They’re very inadequately provisioned for an operation of this magnitude. With time being of the essence, we’re very concerned that help is too far away to reach them in time.

GELLERMAN: I’ve seen some of the photos of the penguins covered in petroleum, it’s really heartbreaking, I’ve gotta tell you.

GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, it’s horrible. And, you know, the problem is also that it’s not enough to clean them internally, because they are ingesting this stuff internally. And once they get coated, they start to preen - and they can get very sick- it’s highly toxic.

View of the oil from the top of Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

GELLERMAN: The passengers aboard the Silver Seas Prince Albert the Second, what are they thinking?

GUGGENHEIM: I think it opened peoples’ eyes to what can happen, and just how vulnerable some of these natural areas really are. It’s also brought out the best in everybody. People are asking: How can we help? We’ve even had a suggestion, let’s just take the penguins aboard the Prince Albert II and bring them back to rehabilitate them. I mean, I for one would be honored to have penguins living in my bathtub, but that’s just not practical. The ship isn’t set up for that sort of specialized care, we don’t have the right equipment, we don’t have the right materials, but the spirit was there. And it’s very, very admirable. It’s something they’ll never forget.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. David Guggenheim, thank you so very much. I really appreciate it. And, good luck.

GUGGENHEIM: Thank you so much, and thanks for paying attention to this tiny little speck of the planet - because it’s an important one.

GELLERMAN: David Guggenheim, a.k.a, the Ocean Doctor, speaking to us by sat. phone from the Prince Albert II. The luxury eco-ship helped save sailors and witnessed an environmental disaster in the South Atlantic. For incredible photos go to our website, L-O-E dot org.



Read updates on the spill at Tristan da Cunha


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