Penguins rehabilitated after oil spill swim to their homes

African penguin T1453 flipper banded in 1997, oiled and rescued in South Africa in 2015. Experts are delighted that penguins continue to live to this age in the wild. Nothing beats seeing an African penguin take to the waves after weeks of care following an oiling incident. All the work to get them waterproofed, strong and swim ready finally paid off.

That’s exactly what happened when the first seven of 30 penguins oiled in a mystery oil spill off the coast of South Africa a few weeks ago returned to the sea last weekend to take the big swim back to their home colonies.

Staff and volunteers at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) achieved the feat of rehabilitating the first birds in just two-and-a-half weeks, and waved them off from the lighthouse at Cape St Francis from where they swam to St Croix and Bird, two islands that collectively support about 60 per cent of South Africa’s endangered African penguin population.

The birds and four chicks were rescued by SANParks rangers who found them with up to 85 per cent of their bodies covered in sticky black oil. It is unclear where the oil had come from but South Africa’s coastline can be described as a shipping superhighway – with the two island colonies lying close to the busy harbours of Coega and Port Elizabeth.

But this rescue held an added happy surprise: One of penguins admitted to SANCCOB’s seabird centre, whose body was 30 per cent covered in oil, had an identification band with the number T1453 on his flipper.

After researchers consulted SANCCOB’s records it showed that T1453 was banded as a juvenile penguin back in 1997 on Bird Island by the SANParks Marine Rangers Section. This makes T1453 a full 19 years old. The re-sighting of T1453 is not only important for on-going population research on the African penguin species but it is also very encouraging to know that there are still African penguins in the wild that are surviving to this age. With enough T.L.C. by team SANCCOB, T1453 should be ready to return to the penguin colony on Bird Island within the next few weeks.

IFAW has proudly supported SANCCOB, one of the world’s top seabird rescue centres since 2000 when the MV Treasure oil spill threatened to decimate two of the most important African penguin colonies. In that spill nearly 20,000 oiled birds were rescued, cleaned and successfully released back into the wild, literally saving a species.

--CP

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