Black Waters—Panic at Sea
The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?”
—JEREMY BENTHAM, EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY PHILOSOPHER
There they were. The scales on the sardines flashed and shimmered as they reflected the sunlight streaming through the water. After feeding their ravenous chicks for two straight days, and having swum several miles to reach the foraging grounds, the penguins were ready to eat. While they usually went out to sea in small groups, once they located a school of fish, every penguin had to isolate and capture their own prey. Each bird was now on its own. One of the penguins took a deep breath and dove beneath the sparkling surface of the ocean, swimming until it was below the schooling fish. The penguin hovered there, its black back blending in with the dark ocean floor, helping to conceal it from the sardines above. Then, in a sudden burst of speed, it shot up through the swirling mass, grasped a silvery fish behind its gills, and, while still underwater, swallowed it headfirst and whole. A swift and agile hunter, the penguin caught and swallowed several more fish before its aching lungs signaled the need to come up for air. After being underwater for several minutes, it surfaced far from where it had originally submerged.
Only now, the penguin found itself in the midst of a thick and noxious substance that clung to its feathers and slowed it down as it swam. The caustic oil got into the bird’s eyes, burning them and making it hard to see. Confused and anxious, the penguin struggled to make its way through the viscous black stuff floating on the surface of the ocean. The heavy oil coating its body weighed it down, making it hard to keep its head above water. The penguin frantically pumped its wings, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to move. With every breath, it inhaled some water, along with the traces of oil coating its beak. Choking on the toxic mix burning its lungs and throat, the penguin coughed and struggled to breathe.
The sticky oil had caused the penguin’s dense, overlapping feathers to clump and separate, and the cold ocean waters now penetrated its feathers like icy fingers. The water eventually reached the penguin’s skin; as its body temperature plummeted and hypothermia set in, it became weak and disoriented. The penguin swung its head from side to side, searching for the nearest landmass. If it could make it to shore, it might get some relief from the cold and the fumes. There was an island several miles off in the distance, but did the penguin have the strength to swim that far? Instinct drove it to head in that direction. But, in its weakened state, it was several strenuous hours before the island was within reach. As the penguin made its final approach, the breaking waves tossed it violently against the rocks, which were now slick with oil, causing it to slip and struggle to get its footing. Exhausted, the penguin finally heaved itself onto the rocky beach, where hundreds of other penguins stood huddled together, the heavy black oil that slowly dripped from their bodies forming expanding black puddles around their feet.
Some of the penguins stood statue-still. Hunched over, their wings hanging limply by their sides, they were in a state of shock. Others were compulsively preening themselves, trying to remove the thick substance from their bodies; but it was an impossible task. The oil clung to every last feather and, while using their beaks in their futile attempts to clean and straighten them out, the birds were inadvertently swallowing large amounts of the toxic mess. If the oil remained in their intestinal tracts, bleeding ulcers would form, causing their normally green and white feces to turn dark brown from digested blood and swallowed oil. Over time, the toxins from the oil would get into their bloodstreams, where they would break down the red blood cells, leading to anemia. Eventually, the ingested oil could kill them.
The penguins were now landlocked. They could not return to sea to hunt for food, because their soiled feathers no longer provided protection from the icy waters. Any oil-coated penguins that were eventually driven by hunger to brave the waters to feed were quickly forced back to shore by the penetrating cold. Even though schools of fish were just yards away in the ocean, the penguins were compelled to stay on dry land; but standing there, they would soon starve to death. Their hungry chicks would starve as well. It was an impossible situation. There were no good options for the penguins—or their chicks—and there seemed to be no way out of their deadly predicament.
At first, a few hundred penguins were standing on the beaches, then a few thousand, and later, more than 10,000. And still they kept arriving until, in the end, nearly 20,000 penguins covered with oil lined the coasts of South Africa’s Robben and Dassen Islands. Those penguins that couldn’t make it back to land swiftly enough after swimming through the oil succumbed to hypothermia or drowned. The penguin that had struggled to get there from the feeding grounds that day had been fortunate enough to make it back to shore before meeting either of those fates. Eventually, though, one out of every ten oiled penguins standing there would die.
Would this penguin be one of ten as well? Would anyone come to its rescue?
© 2010 Dyan deNapoli