On 23 June 20 years ago the ship MV Treasure sank off Cape Town spilling tons of bunker oil into the sea. The penguins of Dassen and Robben Islands were badly oiled. Various environmental organisations led by Cape Nature organised the rescue and cleaning of the oiled penguins. I heard an appeal for volunteers. So after work at 4 I volunteered.
I was met by an enormous man called Big Mike and I was handed a waterproof suit and told to carry boxes of penguins from the fleet of army trucks that rolled in in a steady stream.
Now penguins have sharp beaks and they were sorely unhappy so they would peck at any unguarded human flesh the could reach as I learnt when carrying soggy, disintegrating cardboard boxes the evening before. Vicious beaks would appear out of breathing holes at every opportunity. Amazingly I did not get pecked, but it was seriously close a number of times.
At about 10 the stream of trucks stopped. At about the same time a local pizza chain provided free pizzas. After what passed for dinner, I was told to help build pens out of porta pools donated by a local pool company. At 12 I nodded to Big Mike and headed off home.
Next evening after work I went back and spend the first part of the evening cleaned penguin excrement out of the porta pools. Then I got the job of building runways to guide penguins to a specially constructed and filled pool. That done we dismantled empty penguin pools, washed them thoroughly and rebuilt them.
I watched them feeding penguins. The penguins were getting sardines packed with antibiotics. The feeders for the most part had bandages on their hands where they had been pecked except for one woman who was completely unscathed and faster than anyone else. Someone would pass her a penguin and she, sitting on an upturned bucket would clasp the furious creature between her knees and wave an enticing hand over the penguins head. The penguin would lunge at the hand, she would catch the penguin in mid peck, jam its beak open, drop a sardine into its throat and clamp the beak closed before the bird had any idea of what had happened. She was absolute magic to watch.
At some stage, I snarled at someone, “I hate penguins!”
“Why are you here then?” obvious question.
“So my grandchildren can hate them too.”
At midnight I went home, showered, slept and reported for work the next morning. That evening I went back but the line of volunteers was long. I was relieved that someone else would be there as I was tired.
It was one of those pinnacle experiences that you remember forever.
Last week I got an email from Cape Nature advertising the opening of their hiking trails and it had this paragraph:
“This month marked on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s worst environmental disaster. On the 23rd June 2000, the bulk ore carrier, MV Treasure was battling tempestuous seas in a storm off the coast of the Western Cape when the vessel foundered and sank, causing 1,300 tons of oil to seep into the ocean. This put the two large colonies of African penguins on the nearby Robben and Dassen islands in grave danger. What happened next has been called the largest animal rescue ever attempted.”
So, it turns out that not only did I have the rare and privileged experience of rescuing penguins but purely by accident I was part of a world record. 😊