The moment I saw the penguin on the beach, dripping with thick, black oil from head to toe, I knew. I knew that this was the beginning of something big that I would not be able to cope with on my own. My premonition unfortunately turned out to be right; I had just spotted the first of altogether 171 oiled penguins that would be found at the four main penguin breeding colonies in Namibia over the next few weeks. It was April 2009, a time when I was responsible for all things seabird at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, including the small seabird rescue facility in Lüderitz that could comfortably hold up to 30 penguins – perhaps 50 at a push. But more than that? No way!
Oiled penguins are doomed as their polluted feathers no longer provide the warm, waterproof diving suit they need to brave the icy Atlantic Ocean. They have to be caught, cleaned and nursed back to health if they are to survive. Rehabilitating oiled penguin is expensive and hard work. Being wild animals, penguins instinctively fight for their lives when confronted with a bubble bath and a brush, and use beak, claws and flippers with surprising efficiency to slash, scratch and bruise their rescuers. They also need to be fed, often by force because they are not used to eating dead fish out of a bucket, and have to be persuaded to swim regularly in the small pool at the facility to regain their natural waterproofing. How were we, a mere handful of trained and experienced penguin handlers in Lüderitz, ever going to cope with such an unprecedented influx of oiled penguins?
Enter the Lüderitz – aka “Buchter”– community. Word about the penguins’ plight quickly spread through town and before we knew it locals from all walks of life started flocking to the penguin holding pen to offer their help. Donations of equipment to clean the penguins with (like toothbrushes and towels) poured in. One family spontaneously cancelled their Easter Sunday celebration to provide transport for the rescue of a group of oiled penguins from Halifax Island. A small hotel lent us some hot-water urns when our geyser could not cope anymore. A lady I had never met before unexpectedly arrived one day with pizzas and cool drinks to revive exhausted helpers – a most welcome gesture. A family of four watched us clean penguins, then dashed off and returned with plastic basins they had just purchased so we could set up additional cleaning stations. Volunteers found themselves converting a storage shed into a temporary holding pen, complete with en-suite miniature pool, and assembling additional makeshift partitions to keep groups of oiled, cleaned, weak and strong penguins separated. Others ended up with the unenviable tasks of scrubbing the constantly filthy pools, counting out vitamin tablets for our patients, defrosting large amounts of sardines that were kindly donated by a local fishing company, keeping our “patient record cards” meticulously updated, and learning how to hold and feed uncooperative penguins without getting injured too badly in the process. The local voluntary fire brigade even lent us a spare water hose so we could fill up the pools more quickly. Those that helped to clean the penguins inevitably ended up soaked in oily water from head to toe. Most office staff enthusiastically rolled up their sleeves and pitched in too, even when this was not remotely part of their job description.
The rest of Namibia also rallied and greatly contributed through generous donations to the rescue effort that eventually saw the strongest of the cleaned penguins being evacuated for further care to a larger facility in South Africa. More than two months after I had found that first oiled penguin, we waved the last penguin goodbye as it swam off from Guano Bay beach towards Halifax Island.
Was it all worth it? Oh yes, definitely. All but six of the oiled penguins survived and were released back in the wild. Since then we have seen most of them again on our islands, including many that are now breeding and are therefore contributing to a new generation of African Penguins in Namibia. Our hard work to save these endangered birds was therefore not in vain. And although this ended up being a remarkable international rescue effort, it was largely the compassion and support from the Buchters that carried me (and the penguins of course) through these challenging weeks, and turned a potential disaster into a success story. That extraordinary Buchter spirit was so, so inspiring and I am proud to be part of this community.