Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dyan deNapoli's "The Great Penguin Rescue"

Dyan deNapoli is a penguin expert, educator and author of The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill and the Inspiring Story of the World’s Largest Animal Rescue. The book has been favorably reviewed by The New York Review of Books, The Daily Beast and The New York Post, who put it on their required reading list, calling it “a real-life eco-thriller with a happy ending.” In her work as The Penguin Lady, deNapoli has traveled to many exotic locations, including Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands, to observe and teach about penguins.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Great Penguin Rescue and reported the following:
The Great Penguin Rescue chronicles the remarkable rescue of 40,000 penguins from an oil spill after a ship named the Treasure sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa in June of 2000. This monumental effort still stands as the largest and most successful rescue of animals ever undertaken – including the one that took place following the horrific BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the Treasure oil spill, I was working as a Penguin Aquarist at Boston’s New England Aquarium and, along with seven other penguin specialists from zoos and aquariums across the US, I flew to Cape Town to help train and supervise more than 12,500 inexperienced volunteers who had come to help save the oiled birds. With so many penguins’ lives at stake, and with so few experienced animal experts there, no one knew what the outcome would be. In the last large-scale rescue effort following the sinking of the Apollo Sea six years earlier, half of the 10,000 oiled penguins had perished, and we now had twice as many oiled penguins on our hands. In addition to these oiled birds, another 19,500 penguins had to be removed from their breeding grounds before the oil slick hit the shores of their islands.

Our team was there for the first few weeks of the three-month rescue and, in the ten years since, I’ve read dozens of scientific papers about the effort and have given many lectures about the experience. However, the story that falls on page 99 is one that even I had not known about until interviewing Mariette Hopley while researching the book. Ms. Hopley is a former air-force captain who oversaw the creation of a massive temporary holding facility, called the Salt River Penguin Rescue Centre, that housed 16,000 of the 19,000 oiled birds. (The other 3,000 oiled penguins were at SANCCOB, the local seabird rescue center.) The story that Mariette shared with me reinforced how tenuous the situation truly was.
Ensuring there was enough fish for the penguins presented a challenge in itself. Once the rehabilitation effort was up and running, the penguins at Salt River consumed approximately 5 tons of pilchards every day, and during parts of the rescue, they were eating up to 10 tons daily. (That’s 50,000 to 100,000 individual fish every single day.) In addition to the pilchards eaten by the birds at Salt River, the penguins at SANCCOB were downing between 1 and 2 tons of fish every day. During the first two months of the rescue effort, the penguins consumed 400 tons of pilchards—that’s approximately 4 million fish! But this soon became a problem. One month into the rescue effort, just after Heather and I left South Africa, the fish vendors ran out of their stocks of frozen pilchards and the local fishermen had reached their daily quotas of how many fish they could legally catch. They were already delivering all of the fresh pilchards they caught to Salt River and SANCCOB. Because of the dramatic decline in the pilchard population in the Western Cape area, local fishing restrictions had previously been put into place in an attempt to increase the numbers of these fish. Originally established in an effort to help save the African penguin, these restrictions could now harm the very animals they were intended to help. The situation at the two rescue centers had become desperate. Without fish, the penguins would quickly starve to death, and all of our efforts would have been wasted.

Faced with this new crisis, the rescue directors called for a meeting with the minister of environment and tourism Mohammed Valli Moosa and informed him of their urgent need for more pilchards. Once made aware of the huge numbers of penguins that could die as a result of this food shortage, Valli Moosa agreed to temporarily lift the restrictions on the pilchard catch. Deeply concerned about the survival of South Africa’s beloved penguins, he granted special provisional permits that allowed local fishermen to catch as many pilchards as they could, with the explicit understanding that they could not sell the surplus catch.
Fortunately, due to the immediate response to this unforeseen crisis, enough food was caught and delivered to the rescue centers for the next few months to keep the penguins from starving. This was just one example of how the compassion and commitment of the South African people saved the penguins during this tremendous environmental disaster.
Learn more about the book and author at The Penguin Lady website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue