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Archive: The "Treasure" Oil Spill, June 2000

Brief History of Penguin Oiling in South African Waters

Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town

The use of oil instead of coal as fuel accelerated during the 1930s, and increasing amounts of oil began to be transported by sea from producer to consumer nations. The first serious incidents involving African Penguins were in November 1948 and in August 1952. In November 1948, the Esso Wheeling, an American tanker, sank close to Dyer Island. Although the records are not very specific, it appears that one-third of the penguins at that colony died as a result of this incident. The 1952 event was described by Bob Rand, South Africa’s leading seabird ornithologist at the time: "Soiled penguins died on the beaches or lingered on the islands to perish of hunger. Where nesting birds were affected, chicks also died. No matter how small the contamination, the birds refused to take to the water." This statement remains a simple and powerful description of the fate that awaits an oiled penguin.

The next really serious oil spillages seem to have taken place from 1968 onwards. In June 1967 the Suez Canal was blocked by ships sunk in the canal during one of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and it was not reopened until 1975. During these years, an average of 650 oil tankers per month, travelling between the Persian Gulf and Europe, were forced to take the long route around Africa. Many of these ships were ageing, and were not designed to withstand the stresses they encountered passing the southern tip of Africa in winter; it is not without reason that the Cape of Good Hope was also known as the "Cape of Storms".

There was a major oil spill near Cape Town in 1968. The Esso Essen struck a submerged object off Cape Point on 29 April. The ship was, illegally, 5 km offshore at the time, when it ought to have 16 km in terms of the prevailing legislation at that time. With eight out of its 12 tanks ruptured, the ship spilt an estimated 4000 tons of oil. Thousands of seabirds, including penguins, were found oiled, and virtually all died. Mrs Althea Westphal, who was involved in attempts to clean penguins, decided that one of the chief reasons for the failure of the cleaning operation was the total lack of preparedness. This lead to her to establishment an organisation called the Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, known, for short, as SANCCOB, in 1968. Over the years SANCCOB has developed suitable facilities to enable it to clean oiled seabirds, especially penguins.

The Table lists the oil spills along the South African coastline that are known to have impacted more than 500 penguins. During the 20th century, there were six spills in which more that 1000 penguins were oiled: the Esso Essen spill in 1968, the Wafra in 1971, a slick of unknown origins which came ashore onto Dassen Island in 1972, the Oriental Pioneer in 1974, the Apollo Sea in 1994, and a spill of unknown origins in the sea off Danger Point in 1995. Besides the acute crises in which large number of penguins are oiled simultaneously, there is a chronic, ongoing problem of small spillages, that results in about 1000 oiled penguins being brought to SANCCOB each year.

The worst spill by far was the Apollo Sea oil spill in which an estimated 10 000 penguins were oiled. About 5000 penguins died; of the 5000 that were released, 4076 were flipper-banded. The most intensive resighting programme ever mounted after an oil spill started within days of these birds being released. Over the following five years, 73% of these 4076 birds were seen alive at least once. In each of the five years, we saw more than half of the Apollo Sea penguins that could still have been expected to be alive at the start of that year. These calculations assumed that the annual survival rate of normal adults penguins, which is about 85%, applied to cleaned penguins as well. All our studies are pointing towards the survival rates of cleaned penguins being much the same as the survival rates of normal penguins.

During the Apollo Sea oil spill, about 60% of the deaths occurred in the period during transportation and stabilization. This is the period from being collected on the shoreline to receiving emergency treatment during the first 24 hours at SANCCOB. This was identified as the critical phases in the rescue operation which needed the most attention. A smallish spill in Cape Town Harbour in 1998 impacted 563 penguins. Three of these had also been oiled in the Apollo Sea spill, and became SANCCOB patients for the second time in four years. The number of losses was only 16, and 547 birds (97%) were released. This represents an incredible feat, and one that has not been matched anywhere in the world.

The Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town has carefully followed up the penguins released after the Apollo Sea incident and the Cape Town Harbour oil spill. Detailed descriptions of the results of the ADU monitoring are available on the ADU website. In brief, these results make it clear that oiled penguins cleaned at SANCCOB survive as well as penguins that have never been oiled.

SANCCOB will continue to play a key role in the conservation of the African Penguin. The Animal Demography Unit commends the SANCCOB Adopt-a-Penguin project.


Table. Incidents in which more than 500 African Penguins have been oiled.


Description of incident

Amount of oil

Estimated number of penguins oiled

November 1948

Tanker Esso Wheeling sank 30 nautical miles from Dyer Island



August 1952

Oil slick of unknown origins at sea; penguins came ashore mainly on Robben Island



April 1968

Tanker Esso Essen ran aground near Cape Point



November 1970

Kazimah ran aground on Robben Island

1000 tons fuel oil


February 1971

Wafra ran aground near Cape Agulhas

6000 – 10 000 tons crude oil


March 1972

Penguin landing beaches on Dassen Island covered in oil of unknown origin



August 1972

Collision between Oswego Guardian and Texanita off Ystervark Point

About 10 000 tons of crude oil and fuel oil


July 1974

Oriental Pioneer grounded at Struisbaai

200 tons of fuel oil

Several thousand

August 1985

Kapodistrias ran aground at Cape Recife, Port Elizabeth



June 1994

Iron ore carrier Apollo Sea sank near Dassen Island

2400 tons of fuel oil

About 10 000

July-September 1995

Oil slick of unknown origins off Danger Point



May 1998

Oil supply pipeline burst in Cape Town Harbour, and some oil leaked into Table Bay

500 tons fuel oil in the harbour and five tons in Table Bay


June 2000

Iron ore carrier Treasure sank between Robben Island and Dassen Island

1500 tons fuel oil

19 000 oiled, 19 500 relocated to prevent them from being oiled