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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 13:35 EDT

South Atlantic Oil Spill Leaves Penguins In Danger

April 4, 2011

At least 300 penguins have died in the south Atlantic after a cargo ship leaked thousands of tons of heavy oil, diesel fuel and soya bean near Nightingale Island, a British territory part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.

“I’ve seen about 15 to 20 dead penguins just today. The danger now is getting the rest of these penguins past that oil slick,” director Trevor Glass told CNN.

Local officials and conservationists claim that thousands more are covered in the ships’ oil and diesel fuel. A rescue operation to save as many of the migrating sea birds as possible began shortly after March 16, when the ship ran aground, fracturing its hull and ultimately splitting the vessel in two, spilling its cargo.

The M.S. Oliva was heading from Santos, Brazil, to Singapore and had been carrying 60,000 metric tons of soya beans and 1,500 metric tons of heavy fuel, according to islands’ administrator Sean Burns and Transport Malta, the Maltese shipping authority.

The agency said in a statement that it “is investigating the grounding and subsequent complete hull failure” of the bulk carrier cargo ship.

The dramatic rescue of the ship’s 22 crew members was captured on video, along with the spills’ aftermath, which showed penguins soaked in heavy oil. A sheen of oil and fuel has surrounded the island chain, which officials explain could lead to a larger environmental disaster.

The video was shot by an expedition team from an eco-tourism ship and inflatable boats were used to help ferry the sailors of the stricken cargo vessel to safety, according to David E. Guggenheim of the Washington-based Ocean Foundation. Guggenheim witnessed the rescue aboard the Prince Albert II.

Inflatable watercraft and fishing vessels, are now ferrying penguins to a series of makeshift rehabilitation centers at the main island of Tristan da Cunha, where conservationists and volunteers are rushing to nurse the oil-soaked penguins back to health, according to Glass.

Glass said his team had corralled and transported a total of nearly 5,000 penguins by Friday, despite harsh winds and high seas that had hampered the first rescue responses.

Katrine Herian, a spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who is also a part of the ongoing rescue effort, tells CNN, “We need help. The priority is to get food into the birds as they are very hungry,” she said. “We are trying locally caught fish and some are starting to take small half-inch squares of the food.”

Some local residents had emptied their personal freezers in an effort to help feed the animals.

Having occurred at the end of the birds’ molting season, a period during which penguins shed their feathers, the birds do not eat and largely stay out of the water. The shipwreck left the birds “at their weakest possible state,” Guggenheim explained. “They’re very hungry.”

This time of year is the beginning of a period when penguins re-enter the sea, now laden with heavy oil and soya beans.

The Northern Rockhopper penguin is listed as “one of the world’s most threatened species of penguin,” according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The island chain is home to fewer than 300 people. The massive penguin population is estimated at 150,000 — which accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world’s total, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a global network of conservationists.

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