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The Daily Need

Photo: Penguins in peril

Three crude-oil-coated rockhopper penguins on the island chain of Tristan da Cunha in this image made available by Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on March 22, 2011. Photo: AP/Trevor Glass, RSPB

On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill blanketed the area around Prince William Sound in a thick layer of destructive sludge. While no longer the record holder for the largest oil disaster in the United States — that honor goes to last year’s Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — images of polluted marine life have come to symbolize the dangers of overdependence on crude oil. Today brings more images of sea animals in peril, this time from the South Atlantic.

The MS Olivia, a Malta-registered cargo ship carrying 66,000 tons of soya beans and 1,650 tons of crude oil, ran aground last week in a remote British South Atlantic archipelago and broke in two. The ship was traveling from Brazil to Singapore when it struck Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha chain, resulting in a 13-kilometer-wide oil slick that has since encircled the island. Nightingale Island is home to more than 200,000 endangered northern rockhopper penguins, almost half of the species’ global population. More than 20,000 penguins are estimated to have been affected, and rescue workers have already gathered about 500 oil-coated birds.

But oil is only one threat to the penguins. Another comes from possible four-legged stowaways from the cargo ship. Nightingale Island is naturally rodent-free, but the arrival of soya bean-filled rats from the destroyed ship would have disastrous affects on native seabirds. Rats are excellent swimmers, and even have the ability to swim underwater and for great distances.

A salvage tug from South Africa arrived in the area on Monday to assess the environmental damage. Plans are in place to bring on a penguin-cleaning team from Cape Town, as well as response teams from various international wildlife groups. Residents from nearby Tristan Island are also helping with clean-up efforts.

The ship’s 22-man crew has been rescued.

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