70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

Treasure Oil Spill: 20 Years Ago – SAAMBR Penguin Chick Rescue Operation

By Gabrielle Harris


The Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) Director in June 2000 was Professor Rudy van der Elst.  When he casually mentioned at a MANCO meeting that we should be assisting to take care of the penguins that were affected by the Treasure Oil Spill, we naively agreed.  Naïve because we had no idea of how we would do it, or what it would entail.  However passion makes a plan, and we are all passionate about ocean conservation in general, and penguins in particular.  

Without a budget for this exercise, an able group of people jumped on the telephone and began asking for help.  Fish, vitamins, medication and much more was achieved thanks to the charm of the staff and the penguins.  Volunteers were also summoned to assist with the enormous workload. We also had the normal day to day SAAMBR operations to continue with, and needed to employ people who could assist us.  There was no budget to pay them.  Durban locals stepped up in their droves and spent hundreds of hours assisting us.  They also all needed to be trained to assist us.  Time and effort was spent by Sea World management to ensure that valuable volunteers were kept happy.  This proved to be time well spent in that we ended up with an incredibly dedicated and motivated group of people who spent lots of valuable time with us. 

At the time, we already had experience with penguin rehabilitation.  The penguins that we rescued were usually juveniles and they were usually very thin.  The KwaZulu-Natal beaches are not their natural breeding range, so they would have swum a long way for us to find them in need of care.  We had also successfully hand reared several penguin chicks that hatched in our resident colony. 

When the Treasure Oil Spill first occurred, the priority was to get the adults away from the oil.  So the rescuers collected the birds and transported them away from their nesting grounds and then released them to swim home.  The theory was that once they arrived home, the oil would be cleaned up.  When removing all the adults to do the marathon swim, many chicks were abandoned.  Almost two weeks after the marathon rescue, officials went in to collect any chicks that were still around.  These were sent to willing facilities like SAAMBR so that they could be hand reared and then release them back onto Robben Island when they reached adulthood.

We tended to a total of 463 birds.  They ranged in size from 250 grams to over 2 kilograms.  When they arrived at Sea World, they had had no attention from their parents for up to two weeks.  Most were dehydrated to some degree and flea infested. With the assistance of South African Airways, the penguins arrived in batches of up to forty birds at a time.  On arrival, each bird was immediately tagged and weighed and then given a thorough medical by a vet.  They were then tubed a solution of rehydrating fluids, medicated if necessary and assigned to a group depending on their age, weight and condition of health.  Once a bird was old enough, waterproofed, at its target weight and condition, and was deemed fit by the vets, it was sent back to Cape Town to be released back onto Robben Island.  

To avoid stress, the birds were handled minimally.  Birds were encouraged to eat voluntarily to mitigate anxiety.  Daily weights were recorded from all the penguins to aid in the successful management process.  Once the birds were deemed out of danger, they were grouped according to this status and weekly weights were taken.  The groupings were as follows:

  1. Nursery: This consisted of totally downy birds.  The penguins in this group were cared for in the “nursery” where they had access to suitable climate control in the form of incubators.  Hygiene was intensive in this area.  The birds were fed a specialised formula.  They were fed anything up to five times a day and weighed daily. 
  2. Thin dehydrated: This group was only designated in the first couple of weeks of the exercise. It was for particularly dehydrated animals.  These birds were tubed necessary fluids and vetted every second day.  To graduate from this group, veterinary consideration was necessary.
  3. Thin intermediate: An intermediate bird was one who had begun to lose its down feathers. Birds in this group were underweight.  They received close attention and feeding was done more often.
  4. Healthy intermediate: This group contained intermediate birds that appeared in good health.
  5. Juveniles: This group contained all healthy birds that had lost all their downy feathers.  These birds were only weighed once a week.  These penguins were put into the portable pool daily to swim so they could achieve their waterproofing.  It was necessary for penguins to reach this group before they could be sent back to Cape Town.
  6. Hospital: A hospital group was set up for any bird that appeared unhealthy or in need of medication.

A temporary facility was set up at the Sea World boathouse, basically a warehouse on the beach.  Outside lighting was installed, and pens were constructed so that we could keep the birds in different groups.  A portable pool was erected on the beach and water in this pool was changed daily by the fire department.  The warehouse provided suitable space for the nursery, hospital, fish preparation area, stock control area, storage area as well as the volunteer management base.

The penguins were kept in the pens on the beach.  Adequate shade was provided, and at times when the birds could not swim, they were kept cool with a sprinkler system.  The substrate was sand.  Management of the cleaning was done to minimise the handling of the penguins.

Nursery birds were so classified because they were still completely downy.  These were kept inside if it rained. 

Pest control devices were put in place to prevent contamination by flies and mosquitoes.

Hygiene control was stringent.  All equipment was thoroughly washed in fresh water after use and disinfected using donated Vetguard products.  Volunteers and staff were also encouraged to frequently disinfect themselves. 

Fish quality was regarded with the utmost importance.  Fish was quality checked in the SAAMBR laboratory.  It was defrosted twice a day for the penguins. 

Veterinary Support
We were very fortunate to have excellent veterinary support.  Dr Corrina Pieterse from Sea World, her husband Dr Stuart Downes, Dr Mark Penning from the Umgeni River Bird Park and his wife Dr Tina Keldenberg aided in this rehabilitation effort.  A fifth vet, Dr Trish Hulbert also aided us from time to time.  This was especially helpful in the early stages when many of the animals were in need of intensive care, mainly due to dehydration. 

Dr Rick Last conducted autopsies in his pathology laboratory.  Only 2.37% of the birds succumbed for reasons beyond our control.  They died due to malaria, which would have been contracted on Robben Island.  Knowledge of what caused mortalities aided us in our efforts to be proactive in our husbandry procedures.  To contain the possible concern with Aspergillosis, which can manifest due to stress, all birds were fumigated with an antifungal gas in an airtight container.  A shipping container was borrowed, and we successfully treated all our charges in a day.

The support of the local Addington Hospital also contributed to our success.

Security was employed from day one.  There was always someone present.  In the early stages where we had many birds being treated with intensive care, experienced animal care staff stayed overnight at the facility with the security guards. 

There are many factors that contribute to the accomplishment of a project of this nature.  In the end however, the dedication of the people involved will determine the product.  The experience that the SAAMBR animal care staff team have in husbandry matters, was an enormous factor that contributed to the smooth operation of this undertaking.  Their commitment to its end was commendable.