and Robben Island, which together support
the largest colonies of African penguins in the world.
MV Treasure spilled
over 1,300 tonnes
of bunker oil
which oiled thousands
of penguins on
Robben island and
threatened to pollute
Dassen Island too…
MV Apollo Sea Sinking 1994
6 Years before the oil spill from MV Treasure, we had
faced what was, up till then, the worst oil spill off the
shores of the Cape, endangering penguins, with the
sinking of the MV Apollo Sea in a storm in June 1994.
Almost 10,000 African penguins were oiled
from the sinking of MV Apollo Sea.
Like many other Capetonians, I recruited all the friends I could
and mobilised staff from our mission office in Rondebosch to head
over to SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the
Conservation of Coastal Birds),
to volunteer and help with the cleaning and feeding
of oiled penguins as best we could.
Many were clearly emaciated and dangerously underweight.
The oil was life threatening on many levels. It polluted their food
and water necessary for nutrition and hydration.
If they imbibed any oil, it was poison to their system.
The oil also undermined
their natural waterproofing
and brought on the risk of
resulting in hyperthermia.
The oiled sea birds all had to be cleaned. Many needed medicines
and they all needed food.
The SANCCOB facilities in
Table View were overflowing
and struggling to cope
with the influx of
so many thousands
of these precious sea birds,
many of them who looked
in a pitiful state,
covered in life-threatening oil.
At that stage, in 1994, I had never before handled penguins. Like
many others, I was quite surprised at what feisty little creatures
they are, nor had I been aware how strong their flippers were.
We soon learnt to respect these little birds, who, swimming as
they do amongst seals, sharks and whales, did not evidence any
fear of people. They had their self-respect.
They complained audibly at being manhandled
and took bites at us with their sharp beaks.
Undermanned, Underfunded and Underequipped
We had little training and orientation and no protective gear to
speak of. Our first task was to clean the oiled penguins.
To achieve this, we had buckets, sunlight liquid detergent and
brushes to help us scrub off the oil.
After a while,
we worked out a pattern:
One of us would
clean a penguin and
another would rinse them
in a separate bucket.
There were nowhere near enough buckets,
nor volunteers and far less access to hosepipes, or taps.
How to Feed a Penguin
Once cleaned, our next priority was to feed these poor little birds.
It took quite some time and practise to learn how to open their
beaks with one hand, nice and wide, by using finger and thumb
just behind the jaw line and the other hand to correctly position the
fish for them to be able to swallow.
If we did it wrong, the fish could be spoiled, as penguins are not
scavengers and will not pick up torn pieces of fish from the
ground. They had to be hand-fed.
How to Give Medicine to a Penguin
After several attempts to introduce medicines down the throats of
penguins unsuccessfully, one of our people pointed out that the
best way was to simply place the tablets in the mouth of one of
the fish and then to feed them the fish!
I wished I had thought of that myself!
It certainly worked like a charm.
Beware of Slippery Sardines
At one point, having dropped a fish on the ground and leaning
forward to pick it up, I received a sharp peck on the cheek from a
feisty little penguin, who took the advantage of me lowering my
head to within range of his beak.
Just to remind me that he still had his self-respect and was not
taking all this manhandling passively!
Considering how close that peck was to my eyes,
I realised that some eye protection goggles would be a nice
addition to any future penguin rescue operation.
A Sense of Failure
While we were very grateful to have collectively saved over 4,700
penguins who were rehabilitated, restored to good health and
released back into the wild, we lost almost as many penguins,
probably due to our very inexperience and lack of training,
inadequate facilities and very limited resources.
There was a great sense of having been overwhelmed and I could
not help the feeling that we should have done much better.
In the Face of Environmental Disaster
In June 2000, with the sinking of the MV Treasure, in Table Bay,
we had the chance to put into practise all that had been learned
back in 1994 with the MV Apollo Sea oil spill.
Like many thousands of other Capetonians, I, my daughters and
numbers of our staff, headed off to SANCCOB to volunteer our
time to rescue and rehabilitate a much larger number of penguins,
oiled and endangered in this latest sea disaster.
The Worst Environmental Disaster in
South African History
MV Treasure, although Panamanian registered, was owned by a
Chinese shipping company, Universal Pearls, that apparently also
owned MV Apollo Sea, which had caused so much environmental
damage in 1994.
Reportedly, MV Treasure had an 18-metere wide hole in its hull,
due to “metal fatigue”!
The authorities had wanted to tow the ship into the Cape Town
harbour for repair, but many were warning well beforehand that
the ship was too large for the manoeuvre, which proved to be so.
The oil that was spilled from MV Treasure was of the heaviest and
most vicious commercial fuels that can be obtained from
Bunker oil, also known as fuel oil, is what remains after lighter
fractions (gasoline, kerosene and diesel) are removed by
The hideous materials in crude petroleum are not distilled, as the
boiling point is too high to be conveniently recovered. As a result,
bunker oil is very dark in colour, far denser and a significantly
more serious contaminant than other less dense oils.
MV Treasure’s bunker oil spill was described at the time as
“the worst environmental disaster in South Africa’s history,”
particularly as it seriously threatened the African penguin breeding
grounds, Robben Island and Dassen Island.
At that time, the Robben Island Nature Reserve was home to
about 14,000 African penguins and 6,000 African penguin chicks.
Desperate Measures by Divers to Limit the Damage
Divers confirmed that the ship had suffered structural damage and
that oil was rising from cracks in the hull. The engine room vents
leaked a steady stream of oil.
These were closed off by divers, drastically reducing the amount
of oil polluting the surface. The dive team continued to seal off oil
leakages from the wreck. Within 3 days of the sinking, the dive
team had sealed off all leaks from the ship.
Cleaning up the Ocean and the Beaches
The clean-up included workers loading kelp covered in oil, into
trucks and vacuuming up pools of oil with specially designed
In addition, booms were used to keep the oil from entering Cape
Town harbour. The South African company Bio-Matrix was
contracted to help clean up the oil slick, which was polluting the
This product soaks up oil and encapsulates oil without absorbing
water. It also is effective in breaking down and digesting oil.
to Save Sea Birds
With the many lessons learned since the 1994
MV Apollo Sea penguin rescue, the Southern African
Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds
(SANCCOB) worked together with an international team,
including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW),
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and others,
to rescue and rehabilitate the endangered birds.
Massive Rescue Operation
Over 40,000 African penguins were endangered.
Within 10 days of the
MV Treasure spill,
over 20,000 oiled African
penguins had been admitted
into the rehabilitation centre,
a massive warehouse in Observatory, filled with portable pools.
Here we volunteers were mobilised to clean and feed the oiled
The huge railway warehouse, secured to use as the Rehabilitation
Centre, covered over 5 acres of covered space
and an additional six acres
outside was used
for pens and pools
to house the birds
once they had been cleaned,
to enable them to build up
their natural waterproofing
before being released
back into the wild.
More than 3,000 orphaned chicks were collected for artificial
There were also a number of cormorants, sea gulls and other
shore birds, who were rescued, although far less of them were
400 tonnes of fish were
fed to the birds. Some days
as much as 10 tonnes.
7,000 tonnes of beach
sand were brought in for the
bird pens and 7,600 litres
of detergent were used.
Conscripted to Care
During the oil spill crisis, my sister-in-law, Deborah, arrived from
Salzburg, Austria. This was her first visit to South Africa. As I
collected her from the airport, I explained: “Debbie, we have a
crisis. We need to go and rescue penguins.”
There was no hesitation
on her side and soon
Professor Deborah Pelzmann
was dressed in yellow oilskins,
and an effective part of the
international team of volunteers
in the railway warehouse
An Austrian’s Introduction to Africa
My Sister in Law recalls: “I specifically remember how well
organised the feeding was. Each volunteer group (mostly three
people) was in a pen with two smaller pens to the left and right.
One of the smaller pens housed approximately twenty
We had to pick a penguin up in the correct manner (keeping your
chin up and eyes out of the way of his beak) and position the
animal between your legs (keeping your ankles crossed),
efficiently keeping the wings pinned between your knees so that
they could not be damaged.
We had to feed each penguin six fish at each feeding. Three fish
with medicine and three without. That done, the penguin was then
carefully put in the other smaller pen so one could keep track of
which had been fed and which had not.
Each volunteer had to keep calm, collected and mostly quiet,
giving the animals a sense of security and not adding to their
“I also remember almost every grocery store in Cape Town had a
storage bin into which people could donate towels to help clean
“What a fabulous
experience it was,
not to be missed!!!!
Thank you Peter!!!!!
“The down side?
I remember Peter’s car
reeking of fish!!!”
An additional 19,500 penguins who were in danger of being oiled,
were captured before the oil had reached them.
These were transported up the coast to Port Elizabeth,
800km to the East of Cape Town and there released into the
ocean to swim back to their homes.
They were therefore able to feed themselves in the wild, while
swimming back to the Cape and this greatly relieved the logistical
challenges on the cleaning up teams.
Three penguins, named Peter, Percy and Pamela
were fitted with transmitters to monitor their progress.
An Army of Volunteers
The Rehabilitation operation lasted for over 3 months. It was the
largest penguin rescue in history. Over 130 international team
members supervised over 45,000 volunteers.
The success of the great penguin rescue of June-September
2000, was due to many factors.
The lessons learned since 1994,
the large number of volunteers,
including international experts
in sea bird rescue,
the rapid arrival at rescue centres of those trained
and capable of administering emergency care.
Of all the penguins caught, rehabilitated and reintroduced into the
wild, the mortality rate was less than it would have been if they
had been in the wild, during normal circumstances.
Cape Town’s Finest Hour
I was never prouder of being a Capetonian than witnessing the
massive outpouring of concern and practical help of so many in
the community, to save our African penguins.
Without any government help, people from all walks of life
donated their time and resources in order to ensure that the
penguins were rescued, cleaned, fed and that, by the time they
were released back into the wild, the beaches were cleaned and
the penguins were safe.
The day that the first batch of penguins was released back into
Table Bay was one of the most joyful moments in my life! We had
SANCCOB’s Premier Role
SANCCOB had proved to be the premier international
rehabilitation centre for penguins and had co-ordinated
the most successful operation of rescuing penguins from
an oil spill disaster in history.
The well thought through
strategy of capturing,
and rehabilitation of
already oiled birds
and capturing non-oiled birds as a pre-emptive measure and
relocating them far up the coast so that we had time to rehabilitate
their breeding grounds before they returned, was inspired,
The achievements of SANCCOB, IFAW and WWF and the many
thousands of volunteers, not only from Cape Town, but from
literally across the world, was absolutely magnificent. The worst
ecological disaster in South Africa’s history was decisively dealt
The African penguins were effectively rescued and the damaged
environments were speedily cleaned up, before the first penguins
who had been transported up to Port Elizabeth could arrive back
at their homes in Dassen Island.
We look forward to the day
when fossil fuels such as
petroleum are replaced by
cleaner, safer and more
forms of energy and we
look forward to far stricter
regulation of the seaways to
deal with those who would
irresponsibly and carelessly
As we celabrate the 20th anniversary of this historic penguin
rescue, Congratulations to SANCCOB and Well Done to all
those who were involved in this massive effort and to those who
continue to rescue and care for sea birds in Southern Africa.
“A righteous man regards the life of his animal,
but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
In the light of the clear teaching of Scripture concerning
Creation and mankind’s responsibility for it, we should treat
animals with the love and concern of those who must give an
account of our conduct to God.
We must recognise that the welfare and protection of animals
is an essential part of our Christian responsibility..
We must do all
that we can
of all animals