Saving Penguins after Oil Spills

Rena_Spill_Cleanup New Zealand Defense Force

Rena Spill Clean-up. Photograph courtesy of New Zealand Defense Force.

By Frances Hall

At first, the story is familiar: an unnamed sea captain is defined by his moment of carelessness and the enduring consequences that followed. His ship, the Rena, was 775 feet long and heavily burdened with shipping containers, several of them full of hazardous materials. She ran aground a mapped coral reef near the Port of Tuaranga on the North Island, near New Zealand. The collision caused several stress fractures along the bottom of the Rena. As a result, she tilted to the side, losing several non hazardous shipping containers. Oil started to leak into the surrounding waters, known to be a preferred locale for whales, dolphins and penguins. Worse, bad weather prevented any serious efforts at controlling the oil spill for almost a week. Consequently, various estimates state that about 234 tonnes of oil, enough to fill three or four 21-foot long pools, leaked into the ocean before the leakage was controlled. According to several articles, the Environment Minister of New Zealand, Nick Smith, called it “New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in many years.”

Seabirds were especially affected by the disaster. According to ABC news, a mere two weeks after the disaster an estimated 1,000 seabirds had already died. Many of the dead seabirds were charismatic Eudaptyla minor, commonly known as the Blue or Fairy Penguin. All birds have feathers, however those on penguins are distinct–they are incredibly dense and of various lengths, interconnecting into a natural wetsuit. According to Kevin McGowan of Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, via, even  a single drop of oil on this feather coating can compromise it, “It’s like a hole in the penguin’s wetsuit.” Hunting in water is essential to the survival of these birds, yet if they’re oil-coated, both the water and cold can penetrate. Additionally, any oil incidentally ingested can be just as detrimental.


Photograph courtesy of Cat via Wikimedia.

The solution to preventing these effects following an oil spill seems obvious: remove the oil from the birds. However, this process is more involved and finicky than is generally known. Prior to washing, the penguins are kept overnight, in order for them to rest and better handle the stress of being scrubbed. Since the oil from the Rena was especially thick, the Fairy Penguins were initially hosed down with canola oil to break up the larger bits of oil. The penguins were then scrubbed carefully with specially imported detergent. During the average washing, the water is changed four or five times. The detergent is then washed off, and the penguin is checked for any missed spots. One vet is required just to hold the bird still. Washing takes 45 minutes to an hour per bird. Finally, the bird is sent to live in a clean water tank until healthy enough to be released.

The waiting period is a part of the problem: an oil-soaked bird can die in the queue. Nearly every species of bird has an uropygial–oil–gland in the small of its back. Birds use their beaks to stimulate and spread the oil from this gland around their feathers, an essential behavior referred to as preening. However, when oily birds preen their contaminated feathers, they can ingest oil, thus poisoning themselves. The common practice to address this sounds like something a Barbie fan club rather than a scientific committee would have come up with: tiny, adorable, penguin-sized sweaters. When these sweaters are put on penguins awaiting release, they are unable to preen themselves through the wool, preventing the oil ingestion.


Photograph courtesy of Whalespotter via Wikimedia.

A Kiwi yarn shop, Skeinz, put out a knitting pattern and a call via the Internet to the crafty and concerned. And the Internet stepped up. An October 17, 2011 headline from the shop’s blog reads “It’s raining jumpers” and, without listing any precise numbers, refers to the number of sweaters received as a “deluge.” An article posted later that same day, a mere 12 days after the oil spill, stated that the shop had reached “critical mass” of jumpers. The excess jumpers that continued to pour in after this announcement were either saved for the next disaster, or put on stuffed penguins that were sold to raise money for on-the-ground efforts to aid spill clean-up.

Two years later, the wreck of the Rena has not been fully salvaged. However, the surrounding beaches seem to be completely tar-free. Early research suggests that both the immediately adjacent beaches and surrounding islands have recovered very well. A more intensive 18-month study by University of Waikato Professor Chris Battershill will hopefully reveal more.

One thought on “Saving Penguins after Oil Spills

  1. Frances-

    I love this story and of course I immediately had to find images of penguins in sweaters. One of my best friends is a super fan of penguins so I will be sharing this story with her as well.

    Here is an NBC news clip from 10/22/1011 that shares the story but also lots of footage of penguins in sweaters. That image now ranks way up there in the things I will think about when I am having of moment of disappointment in humanity. An army of knitting and crochet needle toting humanitarians is surely an inspiration!


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