Archive: The "Treasure" Oil Spill, June 2000

ADU Penguin Diary 23 June to 2 July 2000

The Treasure oil spill

Les Underhill, ADU Hi All --- Ronel Beukes, communications director at WWF South Africa, is now doing a daily penguin press release for the media. Ronel is collating everything and I pass whatever information I have on to her, so we can look forward to a more balanced total picture than I was able to scrounge. Thanks Ronel for doing this, and I am delighted that there is one fewer task in my daily job jar --- Les

Sunday 2 July

The evacuation of the penguins on Dassen Island started today. Fortunately, the weather continues to be perfect. About 3500 birds were boxed and left the island by boat and helicopter. They are travelling to Port Elizabeth on a three-tier sheep truck. The first of these left Yzerfontein around lunch time today, and the second arrived at Yzerfontein at 4.30 pm while we were leaving. It was due to be loaded up immediately with the birds that had arrived since the first truck had left, and will travel to Port Elizabeth overnight.

The second SAP-sponsored satellite transmitter was fitted as part of a media event at Yzerfontein. From tomorrow we hope that daily position fixes will be plotted on the map on our website.

Saturday evening --- 1 July

A group of 12 ringers went out to Dassen Island today to band unoiled penguins there. We did a total of about 800 birds. We worked inside the fences which have been erected to prevent the penguins going out to sea and getting oiled.

We retrapped a whole bunch of Apollo Sea survivors (which have succeeded in avoiding the oil this time round). Most moving was to retrap S20006. This was one of 450 "orphan" chicks that the late Andre Gildenhuys raised to fledging on the island. Anton Wolfaardt, warden on Dassen, tells me that this bird has been breeding for several years, and that several other orphans are now part of the breeding population on the island.

While we were there, the Court helicopter which had taken Kas Hamman, Zane Erasmus and Tony Williams, all of the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, to inspect the oil around the island landed. Their decision to evacuate Dassen Island of penguins was a clearcut one: oil still bubbling up from the wreck, no wind today so the ocean current drifts the oil north in the direction of the island, the next forecast wind to be a southeaster, which will move the oil onto the feeding areas, etc, etc. The evacuation will start tomorrow, Sunday. The enormity of the task defies description, but there is a plan in place, and provided every component works, the birds will start leaving for the Eastern Cape by late morning. The number of birds to be moved might be as large as 40 000 (forty thousand). This might be largest evacuation of animals since the flooding of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River.

While we were ringing, teams of volunteers were making up penguin boxes in preparation for the evacuation, while others were collecting oiled penguins off the shoreline of the island. I didn't write down the number of oiled birds collected today; it was about 500 by lunch time.

The second SAP penguin will have its satellite tag fitted at Yzerfontein sometime tomorrow during a media briefing. We hope to start getting position fixes on the first penguin from Monday. Meanwhile, find your way to the SAPmap on the website. Rene Navarro at the ADU will update the map each time we get new position fixes from France.

Rob Crawford was on Robben Island today. He tells me that there are still both oiled and clean birds there. Clean birds were sent to MCM's research aquarium in Sea Point and will leave for Port Elizabeth either tonight or tomorrow. Oiled birds, as usual, went to SANCCOB. The operation there will continue tomorrow --- but the main fixture will be at Dassen Island.

Friday evening --- 30 June 2000

There are now 16 000 (sixteen thousand) oiled penguins distributed across SANCCOB's main rescue station and the satellite stations, mostly still from Robben Island. 1100 (one thousand one hundred) chicks are on the mainland, being cared for to fledging. These chicks are not oiled.

Mario Leshoro, environmental officer at the Robben Island Museum, reported that another 1656 oiled penguins were removed from the island by 4 pm today. Nikhil Bramdaw, Robben Island Museum, reported seeing substantial numbers of clean penguins late this afternoon emerging from the thick dense scrub in which they nest on the island; we speculate that these are birds which have taken an extra long turn at the nest, and are now abandoning their clutches in despair of their partner returning to relieve them. Evacuation of this colony will continue tomorrow, and must surely be close to completion.

The weather changed quite dramatically today. The calm seas of the past week were replaced by swells up to 4 m. This hampered and finally put a stop to efforts to remove the remaining oil in the Treasure, and access to Dassen Island. The change in wind direction to about 30 knots from the north has pushed the oil south of Dassen Island; however the wind is changing to the northwest, so it is pushing oil onshore. However, there is not a lot of oil about, and rather little is coming up from the wreck. The strong winds have the positive effect of breaking up the oil; the risk is that they may damage the ship so that it leaks more oil.

On Dassen Island, at least 10 000 (ten thousand) clean penguins are confined to barracks; some will not have fed for five days, but this is not a serious problem. Tomorrow, Saturday, is the day on which the decision will be taken either to release them and let them go to sea, or to transport them to Port Elizabeth. The decision will be made on the basis of a helicopter inspection of the shoreline and surrounding ocean. There are also an estimated 1000 (one thousand) oiled birds on Dassen Island that need to brought to the mainland.

The bird with the SAP-sponsored satellite tag left Port Elizabeth today. We hope to get the first position fixes of this bird on Monday. The web page on which this movements will be shown is up and running and is easily located at the ADU website.

Weather permitting, a party of banders is going out to Dassen Island tomorrow. Regardless of which decision is taken, this will provide a control group of unoiled birds against which to compare the oiled birds.

Thursday evening --- 29 June 2000

I've not kept pace with the big picture today, and no one who is able to help me is at home this evening yet! Rene Navarro has put today's joint press release onto the website.

An ADU team ringed about 160 unoiled birds at the MCM Sea Point research aquarium again this morning, in preparation for their release at Port Elizabeth. They watched the satellite transmitter being fitted to a penguin making the same journey. Three satellite tags are being sponsored by SAP Africa. We are putting a SAPmap onto the ADU website, and (subject to us getting the position information daily from France) we will all be able to follow the progress of this penguin (hopefully) back to Robben Island. The other two satellite tags are due to go onto penguins to be evacuated from Dassen Island.

I helped to ring 120 babies being raised to fledging at Tina MacDonald's impressive facility. I was hugely impressed at the morale of the workers feeding the penguins three fish each, and the music teacher whose pupil kept telling her about the penguins down the road and who came to investigate bringing loads of cooldrink to keep us all going. These chicks are looking really good. We know that this concept works, because (a) we did it after the Apollo Sea spill, and some of those "orphans" are now part of the breeding population, and (b) fledgling African Penguins don't appear to go to sea with the parents, and have to discover for themselves what is food.

We took a dismally oiled penguin that had come ashore near Koeberg to SANCCOB at 18h00. Everything there was humming along at a great pace, but things looked very much under control. Out of the 10 000 (ball park) oiled penguins that have been admitted, my understanding is that there have been about 40 casualties. This is outstandingly small.

The big evacuation of Dassen Island is scheduled to start tomorrow.

A company has been found in Cape Town which is tooling up to make penguin flipper bands. Thanks to the many people who offered help and suggestions.

Phil Whittington has put together information about the first 20 "retraps" (oiled birds that arrived at SANCCOB with flipper bands), and this is on the website. It is an important read.

Rene Navarro has updated the website extensively once again, and there are some more pictures, including a couple at the MCM aquarium and several taken at SANCCOB . Thanks, Rene for your help way beyond the call of duty at the ADU doing this.

A WWF press release about the satellite tags will go onto the website during tomorrow.


Wednesday --- 28 June 2000

The late afternoon flight around Table Bay yesterday revealed that the oil was perilously close to the most important breeding colony of African Penguins at Dassen Island, about 40 km north of Robben Island. The latest news is that Dassen Island is now surrounded by oil, so it is expected that many birds are being oiled there as well.

As of today, 8500 oiled penguins have been collected for cleaning by the SANCCOB Cleaning Centre: 6500 are already at the centre. A satellite centre has been established. It is expected that at least the same number will become oiled and collected over the next few days, and quite possibly many more. This will make it the largest single cleaning operation for the species to date, hugely stressing SANCCOB's capacity. A rough estimate is that as much as 20% of the species' global adult population is likely to be oiled.

Unoiled penguins are being fenced in on Robben and Dassen Islands to stop them going to sea and becoming oiled. Large chicks are being taken into captivity for hand-rearing. 40 are already at SANCCOB, and 1000 more will arrive later today.

140 unoiled penguins from Robben Island were successfully transported to the Eastern Cape by road last night for release in the unoiled waters of Algoa Bay, in the expectation that the 10-14 days it will take them to swim home will be enough time to clean up the oil. To our knowledge, this is the very first time that such a translocation exercise has been tried for any seabird.

There is an urgent need for experienced volunteers with knowledge of handling birds, cleaning oiled seabirds, and most importantly, in organizing untrained volunteers to transport, clean and feed captive birds, etc. Wildife vets are also needed. This expertise does exist in Cape Town, but the pool of volunteers needs to be larger for a disaster of this size.

From the Animal Demography Unit side we also need bird ringers experienced with handling penguins, because we are aiming to ring all birds relocated to Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth, so that we are in a position to assess the effectiveness of this strategy.

Offers of help on the SANCCOB side should be directed to Dr Rob Crawford, Marine and Coastal Management, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism ( Offers for help with flipper banding should be made to Dieter Oschadleus, Ringing Coordinator at SAFRING (

One small way anyone can help is by Adopting A Penguin.


Monday evening --- 26 June 2000

There are now about 2500 oiled penguins at SANCCOB, and about another 500 are boxed on Robben Island and will be shipped the 11 km to Cape Town harbour, and transported by truck to SANCCOB later this evening.

A satellite cleaning station will be established tomorrow.

About 250 clean penguins from Robben Island are flipper banded and ready for transport to Port Elizabeth tomorrow. They will take about 10 days to return, by which time their island's coastline should be cleaned up. If they are prevented from going to sea they will dehydrate and starve; if they are allowed to go to sea on Robben Island they will get oiled.

De-oiling the stretch of rocky shoreline where most Robben Island penguins land and go out to sea was started today. An absorbant material is being used, and is doing the job satisfactorily. The process is likely to continue for several days. A change in wind direction pushed the oil slick away from the landing areas this afternoon, and the area inside the floating oil booms about 100 m offshore of this section of the island is now virtually free of oil.

The ADU website now has some pictures of oiled penguins. These are not for the squeemish. The URL is; click on "What is new", then on "African Penguins", then on "Urgent news". There is quite a lot of other penguin information for those who want an in-depth read. More pictures will be added tomorrow. If there is information that you think ought to be there but we have overlooked, please contact me (for example, a map!).

Also tomorrow, we will have all the information for the SANCCOB "Adopt A Penguin" project on the website. This will be the most practical way in which people far afield will be able to participate and help.

Monday --- 26 June 2000

By late yesterday evening (Sunday), SANCCOB had admitted just over 2000 oiled penguins. About 1350 came from Robben Island yesterday. Oiled birds have been coming ashore on the mainland from about Yzerfontein southwards. Dassen Island has reported about 60 oiled birds ashore, of which about 45 have been captured and transported to SANCCOB.


I was part of a large team on Robben Island yesterday. The oil has come ashore onto the main landing area, so all birds arriving and departing are getting oiled.

The recent nest count on Robben Island yielded 5700 pairs, and 6000 chicks (and an even larger number of eggs). That means 17 400 birds impacted, either directly by oiling, or by having their partner or a parent shipped out to SANCCOB. In addition, oiled penguins tend to make for the closest landfall, so that many of the oiled birds arriving on Robben Island will belong to other colonies.

At this stage we therefore have to prepare ourselves to deal with a disaster up to double the scale of the Apollo Sea spill of 1994, in which 10 000 birds were oiled.

A variety of difficult decisions are in the process of being made. There are three groups of birds being considered: the oiled birds, the unoiled birds on Robben Island, and the chicks on Robben Island.

Overall, though, the emergency reaction has been far better than for the Apollo Sea incident. Birds are being brought to SANCCOB far more quickly, and the know-how about how to stabilize oiled birds has advanced dramatically. However, the birds are dramatically badly oiled, and getting them clean and healthy will be a major challenge.

Saturday --- 24 June 2000

Following the sinking of the Treasure yesterday, 200 to 300 oiled African Penguins have been admitted to the rescue station at SANCCOB today, and they are starting to wash them.

A small team from the Animal Demography Unit are going across to Robben Island tomorrow to assist with collecting oiled penguins there.

Friday --- 23 June 2000

The iron-ore ship which has been in trouble off the Western Cape coast for the past few days, the Treasure, sank early this morning. It went down 8 km northwest of Melkbosstrand, almost exactly opposite the nuclear power station at Koeberg. The place of sinking is approximately 20 km north of the African Penguin colony on Robben Island, and about 40 km south of the colony on Dassen Island. The ship had 1300 tons of fuel oil on board. It seems almost an inevitably that penguins will be oiled.

On 20 June 1994, six years and three days ago, the Apollo Sea sank, initiating the worst penguin oiling incident ever, with about 10 000 penguins impacted. The point of sinking of the Apollo Sea was southwest of Dassen Island, probably less than 30 km from where the Treasure has gone down. The Apollo Sea leaked about 2000 tons of fuel oil into the sea, and successive wind changes spread it around very effectively. It was also an iron ore carrier.