Rena: A deadly combination of tar and feathers

By Jennifer Little

At around 2.20am on the morning of October 5 the 236m cargo vessel Rena struck and grounded on Astrolabe Reef about four nautical miles north off Motiti Island and 12 nautical miles off the coast. The following day four dead birds were seen floating in the slick of oil. They were the first of many casualties. Massey University's Oiled Wildlife Response Unit was immediately mobilised, setting up camp alongside a wastewater treatment base in what would become a long-term operation. Journalist Jennifer Little spent time with the unit ahead of the release of this week's first penguins back into the wild.

A little blue penguin is cleaned and cared for at the Te Maunga wildlife response centre. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
A little blue penguin is cleaned and cared for at the Te Maunga wildlife response centre. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

Patient 13754 is well scrubbed, round-bellied and hungry. The little blue penguin swiftly gulps down his seventh anchovy in a row, hand-fed to him by his two attendant bird rescuers. Meal over, he and three or four other penguins will be bundled into a specially-made, mesh-covered wooden wagon and wheeled out of the Clean Bird Tent, past whiteboards with their feeding schedules, medicine charts and weight gain data, to one of nine outdoor pools for a daily one hour swim.

It is day five of his stay and although he is now healthy enough, he is not yet seaworthy. His rescuers have done their bit, cleaning him of oil, feeding him generously, and keeping tabs on his weight and general wellbeing. Now it is his turn. Only he can preen his densely packed feathers to the natural waterproof state that will keep him warm in the chill of the ocean. The preening may take hours or even days.

Once this is done, he will take up residence in one of the purpose-built outdoor enclosures the volunteers have dubbed "penguin palaces".

And then? When the risk of further oil spills is at an end he will be able to return to the wild to nestle again in the rocks at the base of Mt Maunganui.

It takes a community to save a penguin. Little 13754's journey from near-death to revival has been in the capable, calm hands of wildlife vet and the response centre's director, Dr Brett Gartrell, fellow Massey University wildlife vet Kerri Morgan and marine biologist Helen McConnell from the Manawatu campus, along with 140 personnel from the National Oiled Wildlife Response Team.

Seven international wildlife experts, mainly from the United States-based International Bird Rescue and Oiled Wildlife Care Network, are also here to help. The entire team includes veterinarians, ornithologists and responders experienced in the capture and treatment of oiled birds, who've temporarily left jobs, homes and families to travel here, under contract to Maritime New Zealand. Among the offshore helpers is veteran American oiled bird rescuer Curt Clumpner, who has praised the speed of the response.

Most rescues begin at twilight, with posses of volunteers clomp-ing along the pavement clad in white biohazard suits, lime green or orange high-vis safety jackets, tramping boots and headlamps.

"Ghost-busting eh?" taunt a couple of skateboarders in shorts as we head for the track around the mount, the focus of the oil spill. "Nope, looking for penguins," replies team leader Dave Richards, a local businessman and seabird enthusiast who, along with his teenage children, Bekki and Ben, and assorted helpers, is on his 17th such mission in less than a month to find and rescue oiled penguins and birds.

These nocturnal searches - starting around 7.30pm and sometimes lasting until 2 or 3am, depending on the number of birds they find - have been crucial in saving as many penguins as possible, says Richards. It's the breeding season, and the penguins return after a day's fishing to nest or to feed hatched chicks, so night is the best time to find them. But the timing means volunteers have sometimes had to remove oil-covered parent birds and leave the eggs to die - a heart-breaking but unavoidable choice if they want to save the remaining penguins for next year's breeding season.

Volunteers are dropped off by jeep along the walking track, then clamber over large boulders under starlight and a half moon, peering into the crevices and gaps where penguins have their well-hidden nests. It is painstaking work, requiring great patience and care not to slip, especially on the oil-covered rocks at the outer tip of the Mount.

Another team is performing the same duties on nearby Rabbit Island, where rescuers, having been dropped off by boat, will camp overnight. As well as penguins, the island has been home to an estimated 700 pairs of diving petrels - but many are among the dead. Smaller response centres have also been established on Motiti Island and Te Kaha further south.

When a searcher finds an oiled victim, a cellphone call to a Department of Conservation co-ordinator in a backroom of the Mt Maunganui Surf Club prompts a driver to whizz up on a mini jeep. Oiled birds are transported in plastic pet-carrying containers back to the centre, about 10 minutes' drive away.

The intake tent is penguin 13754's first stop on arrival at the centre, where he undergoes assessment and triage. The full-scale operation, situated on the outskirts of the city next door to a rubbish tip and Baypark speedway stadium, has grown in one month from one container and two tents to a commune of 10 tents, nine pools, 10 aviaries and additional shelters for a staff cafe, supplies and pathology.

The army of volunteer wildlife responders is focused on one thing - getting every penguin healthy enough to be released back to the wild. Penguins' strong homing instincts means they can't be transferred to other regions (little blue penguins live all around New Zealand's coastline) as they would just try to swim back to their original nest.

Penguin 13754 makes it through the initial assessment. But not all do, says Australian-native Gartrell, who grew up on a New South Wales orchard and sheep farm then worked as a vet in private practice in Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart for 15 years before moving to New Zealand.

"Birds with fractured wings or legs, or that are very badly oiled, we may decide it's better to euthanase them than put them through the stress of trying to save them when there is no hope they'll get through."

Birds that make it past the first hurdle are superficially decontaminated with absorbent pads designed to soak up oil off the surface of feathers. They'll get lubricant put in their eyes to protect mucus membranes from the toxic and irritant effects of the oil, and their eyes may be flushed out if necessary. Then blood samples are taken to check the level of red blood cells left in body, because of the toxic effects oil can have on cells.

"The test also gives us an idea of the protein in their blood, to give us an idea of how long they've been struggling for, and finally we look at blood glucose level - also an indication of when they've last had a feed," says Gartrell.

It takes only 15 minutes to get results from the onsite lab. Meanwhile, the birds are given fluids to combat dehydration, and saline solution to replenish their salt glands.

In the Dirty Bird Tent, birds are stabilised before washing - a stressful, exhausting and potentially lethal procedure. In a tent heated to between 28 and 35 deg C, blackened birds are fed, given fluids and kept warm as vets try to judge the best time to start washing.

"At this point we don't try to take off oil, we're just trying to build up their strength, which can take between 12 hours and seven days," says Gartrell. "It's the tent where we see the most mortality. If you start too early, they'll die during the wash, but if you go too late they die because of the oil."

The Washing Tent is where oiled victims start to resemble penguins once more. Cleaning thick, clogging oil from the white belly and deep blue feathered sheen of the world's smallest penguin takes two bird rescue experts, between 500 and 1000 litres of water and plenty of American-made Dawn household detergent - the best product available, donated and shipped for free by the manufacturer. And piles of towels.

Instinctively, perhaps ignorantly, you'd think the birds would be keen to remove the foul substance - heavy bunker fuel - as fast as possible and that they would sense these kindly humans were doing them a favour.

Why, then, is it so harrowing?

"These are wild birds that are not used to being handled by people," says Gartrell. "They're being held under water, and the water is going right down to their skin because it's soapy and they feel like they're drowning. So it's 30 to 40 minutes of being wrestled in soapy water by a large predator."

Rinsing is done separately in an adjoining area, and is less stressful because at least the penguin is no longer submerged in water but instead is standing on a solid surface with water flowing from a small hose through its feathers.

An upgrade to a clean tent means the worst is over and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. "Nothing much happens for a few hours after the rinse. Most birds will sleep - even when people are around - which gives you an idea of how exhausted they are," says Gartrell.

The next phase is one of intensive care and rehabilitation to build up the bird's condition and waterproofing. Orange pet dryers are positioned over the crates where penguins are housed to ensure they stay warm as they begin the preening process to rebuild the natural oils in their feathers that keep them afloat in the water. A few have to be re-washed to remove stubborn oil traces or drips from fish oil they feed on.

Volunteers administer a daily dose of an antifungal drug to prevent penguins contracting the lung infection aspergillosis, which can kill them.

Twice-daily feeds are a hands-on, full-on affair, requiring two people per penguin. One steadies the wriggling towel-wrapped penguin on their knee while the other deftly inserts six to 10 fresh frozen Peruvian anchovies in rapid succession down its gullet.

Seeing a penguin in captivity being fed is startling if you've never witnessed it before. In the wild they race through the water at speeds of up to 6.5km per hour to hunt and will quickly revert to doing this again when released. Here, they swallow 15cm anchovies or sprats whole and eat half their body weight in fish every day, accounting for the 160kg fish supply needed daily at the centre.

Feeding is followed by a swim in one of the common garden portable pools erected in the midst of the centre, fitted with perching platforms so the birds can preen as well as swim.

"At this point they are clean but not waterproof. The birds have to get themselves waterproof," says Gartrell.

"Their feathers have lots of little barbules, which normally interlock to hold the feather in place. During the wash procedure, they all get disrupted so the birds have to preen them back into place. That means going over every single feather several times."

An arduous task, but the penguins appear perky and active as they dart and dive in the water, and are an utter delight to watch. Two other pools are covered with netting, to protect three shags and a shearwater.

Balancing the need for the penguins to swim and regain waterproofing against the fact they get cold easily hinges on the expertise of rare experts like as Michelle Bellizi, a Californian from International Bird Rescue, who has spent years developing the art of accurately assessing the waterproof condition of a seabird. "We want the feathers dry to the skin, nothing but fluff," she says.

The "penguin palace", or custom-built outdoor enclosure, is the next destination after three to eight days of constant feather-coiffing to achieve full waterproofing. The structures have been designed and built by a Manawatu-based company, which is responsible for the formidable logistics of plumbing, gas-fitting and waste disposal here at Penguin City.

It can accommodate up to 500 birds, not including the 60 rare, endangered dotterels kept in their own aviaries.

These palaces have shallow pools for swimming, drained, rubber mat areas for waddling and preening, and are equipped with running water to remove waste, as well as burrows made from upturned fish crates for night shelters. Room service brings fresh fish by the bucket.

Now that all but the last dregs of oil have been successfully drained off the ship, the first of the healthiest penguins have been released. But the facility will need to stay open for a few more weeks, time to ensure the remaining 280 penguins are fully waterproof, of good body weight and adjusted to salty water. Sadly, he estimates around 140,000 birds have died as a result of the Rena spill.

But he is pleased at how well things have gone at the recovery centre, and to have entered a post-emergency phase.

"The most rewarding thing for me is seeing how well my team has worked. We've had lots of plans and a lot of training in place for this, but there's nothing quite like the real thing," says Gartrell, whose ability to remain calm and good-natured amid the pressure is astounding.

"The team has worked brilliantly together doing long hours, sometimes very demanding emotional work."

For Penguin 13754, the most pressing concern is the next feed. Anchovies again?

Little blue penguin

Commonly known as the little blue penguin or korora in New Zealand and as the fairy penguin in Australia, Eudyptula minor is the smallest of all penguins. standing between 35-40cm. Oil-coated, the bird would not last long in the wild. The oil makes the bird's feathers permeable to water, explains wildlife veterinarian Brett Gartrell. When in the water, the penguin would no longer be naturally buoyant and on land the oil-sodden feathers would no longer keep the cold at bay. And when it preened its feathers or fed on oil-contaminated prey, it would ingest toxic hydrocarbons, damaging its red blood cells, liver and kidney. "If they don't drown straight away, it's usually a combination of effects," he says.

- NZ Herald

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