During my time at PAWS, I have had a fair amount of exposure to oiled wildlife, but until this past New Year’s Eve, I had never had firsthand field experience at an actual oil spill. On December 30, 2003, approximately 4,800 gallons of fuel oil spilled into Puget Sound at Point Wells in Edmonds. The resulting slick traveled across the Sound and fouled beaches on the Kitsap Peninsula. The hardest-hit area was a beach and 400-acre estuary on Suquamish tribal land. As I walked on that beach at 7 a.m., two days after the spill, the rising sun created a rainbow iridescence that danced on the water’s surface nearby. If I had not known what gave the water that iridescent quality, I might have considered the image beautiful. But the same substance that caused that brilliant array of colors had painted the beach a much darker chocolate brown. The oil was covering the rocks on which I was walking, as well as the dead crabs and fish that lay among those rocks. It was a horrifying scene—one that until that day was foreign to me, except as an image in a newspaper or on a television screen. The smell, however, was anything but foreign—it smelled very much like a gas station.
When the spill occurred, PAWS was contacted to help with the wildlife rescue efforts. I was paired up with Ken Brewer of International Bird Rescue and Research (IBRRC) to take part in search and collection. During the four days that Ken and I walked the beach, we saw many oiled birds. They were not as oiled as birds that you see in news footage, slicked black from head to toe and turning themselves in to rescuers waiting on the beach. They were birds that had enough oil on their feathers to threaten their lives, but not enough to slow them down to the point at which a relatively slow, bi-pedal primate like me could catch them. Unfortunately for them, the cold waters of Puget Sound are unforgiving to a water bird that has lost its waterproofing, and predators such as eagles and gulls are ever-watchful for animals in distress. In addition, oiled birds ingest oil as they attempt to preen it from their feathers, and they often succumb to its toxic effects. I have no illusions that the birds we were unable to catch somehow managed to overcome their difficulty and live happily ever after. It is unbelievably frustrating to see an oiled bird in the water and know that it will die if you don’t catch it, while at the same time realizing that it is impossible for you to do so. Every unsuccessful pursuit ended with two simple words— "I’m sorry..."
But the days were not completely without successes. On January 1, a search and collection team working on the east side of Puget Sound captured a heavily oiled Western Grebe. Ken and I also met with success the following day when we spotted an oiled Horned Grebe paddling around the Kingston Marina. He was very wet and appeared to be having difficulty staying afloat. He had also begun to exhibit symptoms of hypothermia and was far less alert than a noncompromised grebe. We managed to herd him into an area where a raised walkway extended out over the water. Ken scooped the grebe out of the water from above with a long-handled net just as the bird was attempting to dive out of sight. Both rescued birds were washed and treated at PAWS for oil ingestion, and both made a full recovery.
On January 13, I released the Horned Grebe into Puget Sound while four camera crews, two photographers, and one radio reporter documented the event. I placed the bird in the water and he swam cautiously away. After shaking himself a few times to realign his feathers, he began to dive. Every time he resurfaced, water beaded and slid off his back, leaving him completely dry. I had spent almost 50 hours searching for oiled birds in the days following the Point Wells spill. The mornings were freezing, and the frustrations were many. After I released the Horned Grebe, a reporter asked me if all the time and effort put forth was really worth it, considering that we didn’t save many birds. Looking back over my shoulder at a tiny grebe floating contentedly on the water, I replied, "It was certainly worth it to him..."
Reprinted from "Wild Again", a bi-weekly e-newsletter that celebrates the releases of the PAWS Wildlife Center. "Wild Again" is written by Kevin Mack, PAWS Naturalist. To sign up for PAWS’ "Wild Again" e-newsletter click here.