04 May 2011

SANCCOB team leaves penguins in islanders' capable hands

Penguins resting after a swim in the
release pool. Photo by Katrine
TRISTAN DA CUNHA -The SANCCOB team, along with International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) staff, departed Tristan da Cunha for Cape Town on 23 April aboard the Ivan Papanin

Island Administrator Sean Burns thanked them all for their help and support. He acknowledged that there was still a lot of work to be done to clean and release the rockhopper penguins, but he was grateful for the resources left behind - both material and financial.

SANCCOB Chief Executive Venessa Strauss told the Cape Argus the six-member SANCCOB response team felt privileged to be able to help: "We had a chance to make a difference."

She said two positive outcomes of the MS Oliva disaster are that the Tristan da Cunha islanders are now fully trained to rehabilitate oiled seabirds, and that they have the equipment ready on the island should another spill occur.

"We left behind skills, knowledge and equipment. That’s the good that came out of this, and the next response [to an oil spill there] will be quicker and more efficient. This has highlighted how important it is for these faraway places to be equipped and [people living there to be] trained."

Ms Strauss acknowledged the high mortality rate - RSPB Project Officer Katrine Herian reported on 17 April that of the 3718 birds admitted to the rehab centre, 2378 had died - but said it was unfortunate that the oiled penguins had just finished moulting and were therefore in a poor physical condition. She added that if it had been a month earlier, it could have been much worse. 

Release pool 

Before the SANCCOB team left they helped with the construction of a release pool, which was completed on 17 April after three days of intensive work. All washed penguins will be brought to the release pool to be swum and fed in the days up until they are released back to sea.

"It has been a logistical challenge getting this facility up and running," said SANCCOB's Logistical Manager MariĆ«tte Hopley. "We wanted it close to the rehab shed but the ground was too uneven, so we had to relocate."

The release pool is actually two pools, designed so that there constant circulation of freshened water. There are also pebbled areas where the washed penguins can dry off and preen in between swimming and feeding.

While some of the stronger penguins clearly took well to the spacious pools, unfortunately some of the birds struggled with the cold and the swimming, and the stress of this may have contributed to further casualties.

There are now around 446 penguins in total in care. Mr Burns said that the strategy now is to focus additional care and re-rinsing on those remaining, build them up, monitor their feathers and then release when they are ready. While everybody is keen to release the penguins back into the wild, this cannot be rushed as they have to be in good condition for their long voyage.

Nightingale still rodent-free

One of the major concerns when the the MS Oliva crashed was that any rodents aboard the vessel would make their way to the rodent-free Nightingale Island. Thankfully, the team monitoring the bait stations set up on the island for rats have reported that there is no evidence of rodent infestation.

Read related posts

'Oil spill could have been worse' by John Yeld, 29 April 2011, Cape Argus
MS Oliva clean up operation, Tristan da Cunha Association: accessed 3 May 2011
MS Oliva Tristan-based diary, Tristan da Cunha Association: accessed 3 May 2011
Washed rockhoppers get ready for release, RSPB, 18 April 2011, BirdLife International

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