Archive: The "Treasure" Oil Spill, June 2000

Impressions of a SANCCOB Volunteer

I am just back home after my first week down at SANCCOB depot in Salt River, and thought I would share a few impressions with you.

Day 1 - Reported to reception and got kitted out with oilskins, gloves and wellies, and was immediately allocated to the first task which all the newies go to - scrubbing the portapool liners of guano and re-setting the pen with newspaper and matting for the next occupants. However, I soon got the opportunity to be trained in the art of catching and handling the birds, and boy, is this a steep learning curve! You either learn very fast or start tallying the "eina" pecks on the left wrist and thumb. If you don't get the birds under control pretty fast, they seem to nail you on the same spots over and over, so in about an hour and a half - and more for reasons of self-preservation than any other - one becomes an "instant expert" at catching and holding these wriggly little varmints. Once over the initial mastering of the techniques required, one can concentrate on improving so as to cause the birds the least amount of stress in the process. By 1030 was allocated to a feeding team of three feeders and one carrier. This involves entering a designated pen containing about 150 penguins and - sitting on an upturned milk crate and with a bucket of sardines alongside - proceeding to catch one and immobilise it by means of holding it not-so-gently between the thighs and force feeding three sardines plus one special fish containing medication. This process is repeated and repeated and ... say no more. I had committed to working a double shift each day i.e. from 0800 to 1800, but had to "retire buggered" at 1630. At the end of this first day, I felt just like I did after running my first Comrades!

Day 2 - As day one but feeding all day. Was placed with two ladies who had already been going for a week, and felt quite shamed at my comparative inefficiency, so - being the MCP that I am - determined to improve my technique and speed to match these dextrous Amazons. However, on this day a new facto emerged. The sardines arrived frozen solid, due to the huge demand generated by a steadily increasing number of volunteers, thus overwhelming the defrosters. Naturally, the ease of inserting a hard-frozen 7" sardine down a penguin's gullet has to be done a great deal more carefully than a nice fresh slimy defrosted one. Our pleas for warmer fish went unheeded until about three hours through the day, when the natural heat of the day did the job. Felt a hundred percent better at the end of day 2 and made it through to 1800. YES!!

Day 3 - Went fully mentally prepared for another demanding day of feeding, but was hijacked away by the little American lady in charge of the washing bays to head up a new team being set up to pre-oil the birds for washing. This is the equivalent of a washing-machine pre-wash, by gently spraying each bird about to enter the washbays with a light veg oil which acts as a solvent and makes the actual washing process much easier. This process started off beautifully and - working in pairs - we oiled away merrily. But the problem of the oil soon manifested itself, as the oilskins and gloves soon get a liberal coating of the veg oil and make control of the now very slippery bird ever more challenging. However, now having progressed from "newie" to "expert" to "2nd day veteran" we were not to be deterred and made it through another demanding but interesting day.

Day 4 - Jeannie from Sacramento allocates me to the drying room to handle birds for one of the attending vets. This room is situated at the end of the washing section and - once the birds have been washed and thoroughly rinsed - they are bought through to a room equipped with infra-red dryers where the vet handler takes the bird and holds its trachea open for the vet to insert a thin plastic tube into the stomach and inject 120 ml of glucose electrolyte solution for re-hydration, followed by an injection into the keel muscle of 5ml of a multi vitamin. The process is completed by the fitment of a plastic flipper ring, and the bird is deposited into the drying pen until the following morning when the previous day's output is boxed up and transported to SANNCOB, Table View, where they sit out a 2-3 week period until the birds recover their feather mesh and natural oil/air water-proofing, which will allow them to return to the sea - without getting wet to the skin and chilled.

I was absolutely amazed and impressed by the team spirit, work and dedication of everyone there, and also by the unbelievable spectrum of different people throwing in whatever time they can spare. I have been inspired by this huge effort so much that instead of the original intended couple of days I will now be going back for a second week. I can only urge everyone who can afford a few days to make the effort. It will certainly uplift your spirit, even if it does wreck your forearms. The heartbreaking element is, of course, that for every 500 sent out clean, a 1000 new arrivals appear. Nevertheless, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is the light of the will to overcome of all those wonderful people involved.

Mike Ford
Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa

Originally posted onto SABIRDNET on 09-07-2000
With thanks to Mike.

I am just back in sleepy old Hermanus after the third week at Salt River depot and thought I'd update the situation, as seen through the eyes of a volunteer.

After that first week of moving around various jobs as required by the team leaders, I eventually settled down to steady employment in the first of the two washing sections, where I have been busy ever since, in the role of washer.

Each section consists of two washbays, being converted showers and washrooms previously used by the railways employees; a rinsing section, being the ex-toilet area, and the drying rooms, being the old changing rooms. Each washbay is equipped with 10 overturned plastic 45 gallon drums which act as the bearers for 5 :gallon plastic washing basins, which are filled with warm soapy water by the "water boys". Depending on the number of volunteers available, each bay will be manned by between four and seven pairs of washers - one holder and one washer to a team.

A team will collect a bird from the holding pen outside the door, where, at any given time, about 15 pre-treated birds wait for about 20 minutes for the vegetable oil solvent to do its work prior to washing. The bird is then unceremoniously lowered into the warm soapy water, where a combination of its kicking and struggling, plus some vigorous rubbing from the washer soon removes about seventy-plus percent of the oil.

The bird is then swung into a second basin and the procedure is repeated - the dirty basin being quickly replenished by the tireless water carriers - until the bird is clean from the neck down. This takes anything from two to five basins to achieve, although the record stands at 15 basins for one poor specimen.

The next basin is dedicated to cleaning the neck and face, which is naturally the most sensitive area, which needs to be done with a great deal of care using a toothbrush, and having a rinsing bottle of fresh water handy for when a bit of soapy water gets in the eye. (The bird's that is, not the washer's!). The cleaning process is repeated and repeated until the suds coming off the feathers are clean and all traces of oil are gone. It is easy to see when the white plumage is clean, but the only way with the black areas -the majority - is to carefully monitor the quality of the water and the suds coming off the bird.

Once the washer is satisfied - usually about five minutes after the holders forearms go into cramps! - the bird is carried through to the rinsers, where every vestige of soap is sprayed off using a Gardena nozzle on a hose. A washer's ultimate insult is to have his/her bird returned by the rinsers as "not completely cleaned", so this acts as a pretty good quality control.

The time required to wash a bird varies from 10 minutes for a lightly soiled bird (three basins) to 40 minutes for one heavily oiled (six to nine basins). My worst one came at about eight pm on Wednesday night. After a hard day of cleaning, I was starting to phantasize about that Windhoek lager sitting in the fridge; my handler brought through the biggest, fattest, strongest and dirtiest penguin I had ever seen. Of course, we immediately christened him "Oily Le Roux", and proceeded to ruck and maul with him for the next 45 minutes. Even after all that time this bokkie was still twisting and fighting until, with huge relief I gave him his red card and sent him packing to the showers. That wound up my best day to date, with 54 birds washed (yes I do count 'em - its my twitcher's instinct at work!)

As I write, we're looking at a touch under 8000 birds cleaned, and allegedly 13000 to go, the good news being that no new arrivals are being brought in recently, so the problem is now one of reducing magnitude. The other good news which we heard - also unconfirmed - is that the situation on the islands is good enough for the powers-that-be to consider releasing direct back to Robben and Dassen, instead of the Port Elizabeth option with the long and hazardous swim. Now for a weekend of hedonistic idleness, nursing my laundry rash, before returning to the fray on Monday.

Have a great weekend, and remember:-"Everyone who helps is a hero".

Mike Ford
Friday 21 July 2000

With thanks to Mike.