PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 141, Summer 2005: Notes and Discoveries from the Field

The chemical fingerprint of oil collected from feathers did not match any known sources in the region.


Responding to a Mystery Oil Spill

Diana Humple

Executive Director's Column
Return of the Least Bell's Vireo
Mystery Oil Spill
Bird Bio
Eastern Sierra
Seabirds at Vandenberg
Farallon Auklet News Flash

Long Beach, January 14th. Day three of what is being dubbed the "Ventura Mystery Spill," and the busiest day in California's oiled wildlife response history. We are working at an oiled wildlife facility in Long Beach, receiving oiled birds from collection crews scouring beaches from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. As yet, there is no known source of the oil--no visible slick, no reported accident--just a lot of oiled birds, and the feeling in the pits of our stomachs that this is only the beginning. Today 350 live birds--a staggering number--arrived and await our attention, lined up in boxes that fill the room and threaten to overwhelm us. They are mostly Western Grebes with glaring red eyes and imposing crests, plus a number of Clark's Grebes and a smattering of other species. Before undergoing treatment, each bird receives medical attention, and we collect data and evidence to help evaluate the spill's effect on their populations and to identify and prosecute the responsible party, if possible.Our team's primary focus is collecting data and evidence on all birds, living or dead. To achieve this we work closely with a team of rehabilitation and response experts, all of us part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Using a towel, I remove a grebe from the next box, take it to my work station for a quick but thorough examination, record the data (Oiled? Yes. Percent of body oiled? 80%), and affix a temporary leg band. I then rush to the back of the room where Meredith Elliott, another member of our team, is poised with a camera to photodocument this individual. Afterward, I return it to its box, which I give to the rehabilitation team so the bird can receive fluids. Then I myself take a swig of water and a deep breath, and grab the next grebe. In total, 11 people from PRBO participated in the response. Our pace could not let up until the bird numbers did, and for the first full week we worked 17-hour days. In an environment kept at 90 degrees to keep the oiled and hypothermic birds warm, we wore body suits and gloves to prevent our own contamination; heat exhaustion was always just around the corner. Dedication tinged with adrenaline kept everyone going remarkably well, but each night I truly did not recognize myself in the hotel's elevator mirror.There is no satisfying resolution to this story. State Fish and Game officials are still seeking the source of the oil. The chemical fingerprint of oil collected from feathers did not match any known sources in the region--natural underwater seeps, pipelines, platforms, or retired inland oil wells (which might have flooded into rivers due to unusually heavy rains). Impacts of this single large and mysterious event on Western Grebe populations may prove to be substantial. Approximately 1,500 oiled birds were collected, with perhaps thousands more affected but never found. About 80% of the live birds collected died despite herculean rehabilitation efforts. Much knowledge was gained by rehabilitators that will improve future responses, and the data that we collected will potentially contribute to grebe conservation.

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