11:44
TEDxBoston 2011

Dyan deNapoli: The great penguin rescue

Filmed:

A personal story, a collective triumph: Dyan deNapoli tells the story of the world's largest volunteer animal rescue, which saved more than 40,000 penguins after an oil spill off the coast of South Africa. How does a job this big get done? Penguin by penguin by penguin ... (Filmed at TEDxBoston.)

- Penguin expert
Call her "the Penguin Lady." Dyan deNapoli educates the world about these fascinating birds. Full bio

For as long as I can remember,
00:15
I have felt a very deep connection
00:18
to animals and to the ocean.
00:20
And at this age,
00:22
my personal idol
00:24
was Flipper the dolphin.
00:26
And when I first learned about endangered species,
00:28
I was truly distressed to know
00:31
that every day animals were being wiped off the face of this Earth forever.
00:34
And I wanted to do something to help,
00:38
but I always wondered,
00:40
what could one person possibly do to make a difference?
00:42
And it would be 30 years,
00:45
but I would eventually get the answer to that question.
00:47
When these heartbreaking images of oiled birds
00:51
finally began to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico last year
00:54
during the horrific BP oil spill,
00:57
a German biologist by the name of Silvia Gaus
00:59
was quoted as saying,
01:01
"We should just euthanize all oiled birds
01:03
because studies have shown
01:06
that fewer than one percent of them
01:08
survive after being released."
01:10
And I could not disagree more.
01:12
And in addition, I believe that every oiled animal
01:15
deserves a second chance at life.
01:18
And I want to tell you
01:20
why I feel so strongly about this.
01:22
On June 23rd, 2000,
01:24
a ship named the Treasure
01:26
sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa,
01:28
spilling 1,300 tons of fuel,
01:30
which polluted the habitats
01:32
of nearly half the entire world population
01:34
of African penguins.
01:37
Now the ship sank between Robben Island to the south
01:40
and Dassen Island to the north.
01:43
And these are two of the penguins' main breeding islands.
01:45
And exactly six years and three days earlier,
01:48
on June 20th, 1994,
01:51
a ship named the Apollo Sea sank near Dassen Island,
01:54
oiling 10,000 penguins --
01:57
half of which died.
01:59
Now when the Treasure sank in 2000,
02:02
it was the height of the best breeding season
02:04
scientists had ever recorded for the African penguin --
02:07
which at the time, was listed as a threatened species.
02:10
And soon, nearly 20,000 penguins
02:13
were covered with this toxic oil.
02:16
And the local seabird rescue center, named SANCCOB,
02:19
immediately launched a massive rescue operation --
02:22
and this soon would become
02:25
the largest animal rescue ever undertaken.
02:27
Now at the time, I was working down the street.
02:30
I was a penguin aquarist at the New England Aquarium.
02:32
And exactly 11 years ago yesterday,
02:35
the phone rang in the penguin office.
02:39
And with that call, my life would change forever.
02:41
It was Estelle van der Meer calling from SANCCOB,
02:44
saying, "Please come help.
02:47
We have thousands of oiled penguins
02:49
and thousands of willing,
02:51
but completely inexperienced, volunteers.
02:53
And we need penguin experts to come train and supervise them."
02:57
So two days later,
03:00
I was on a plane headed for Cape Town
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with a team of penguin specialists.
03:04
And the scene inside of this building
03:07
was devastating and surreal.
03:09
In fact, many people compared it to a war zone.
03:12
And last week, a 10 year-old girl asked me,
03:15
"What did it feel like
03:18
when you first walked into that building
03:20
and saw so many oiled penguins?"
03:22
And this is what happened.
03:26
I was instantly transported
03:28
back to that moment in time.
03:30
Penguins are very vocal birds
03:32
and really, really noisy.
03:34
And so I expected to walk into this building
03:36
and be met with this cacophony
03:39
of honking and braying and squawking,
03:41
but instead,
03:43
when we stepped through those doors and into the building,
03:45
it was eerily silent.
03:48
So it was very clear
03:52
these were stressed, sick, traumatized birds.
03:54
The other thing that was so striking
03:57
was the sheer number of volunteers.
04:00
Up to 1,000 people a day
04:02
came to the rescue center,
04:04
and eventually, over the course of this rescue,
04:06
more than 12 and a half thousand volunteers
04:09
came from all over the world to Cape Town
04:12
to help save these birds.
04:14
And the amazing thing
04:16
was that not one of them had to be there --
04:18
yet they were.
04:20
So for the few of us that were there in a professional capacity,
04:22
this extraordinary volunteer response
04:25
to this animal crisis
04:27
was profoundly moving and awe-inspiring.
04:29
So the day after we arrived,
04:32
two of us from the aquarium were put in charge of room two,
04:34
and room two had more than 4,000 oiled penguins in it.
04:37
Now mind you, three days earlier,
04:41
we had 60 penguins under our care,
04:43
so we were definitely overwhelmed
04:45
and just a bit terrified -- at least I was.
04:47
Personally, I really didn't know
04:50
if I was capable of handling
04:52
such a monstrous task.
04:54
And collectively,
04:56
we really didn't know if we could pull this off.
04:58
Because we all knew
05:01
that just six years earlier,
05:03
half as many penguins had been oiled and rescued
05:05
and only half of them had survived.
05:07
So would it be humanly possible
05:10
to save this many oiled penguins?
05:12
We just did not know.
05:14
But what gave us hope
05:16
were these incredibly dedicated and brave volunteers --
05:18
three of whom here are force-feeding penguins.
05:22
And you may notice they're wearing very thick gloves.
05:25
And what you should know about African penguins
05:27
is that they have razor-sharp beaks.
05:30
And before long,
05:32
our bodies were covered head to toe
05:34
with these nasty wounds
05:36
inflicted by the terrified penguins.
05:38
Now the day after we arrived,
05:40
a new crisis began to unfold.
05:42
The oil slick was now moving north towards Dassen Island,
05:44
and the rescuers despaired,
05:48
because they knew if the oil hit,
05:50
it would not be possible to rescue any more oiled birds.
05:52
And there really were no good solutions.
05:55
But then finally,
05:57
one of the researchers threw out this crazy idea.
05:59
He said, "Okay, why don't we try and collect
06:01
the birds at the greatest risk of getting oiled" --
06:04
they collected 20,000 --
06:06
"and we'll ship them 500 miles up the coast
06:08
to Port Elizabeth in these open air trucks
06:12
and release them into the clean waters there
06:14
and let them swim back home."
06:16
(Laughter)
06:19
So three of those penguins -- Peter, Pamela and Percy --
06:23
wore satellite tags,
06:25
and the researchers crossed their fingers and hoped
06:27
that by the time they got back home,
06:29
the oil would be cleaned up from their islands.
06:31
And luckily, the day they arrived,
06:33
it was.
06:35
So it had been a huge gamble, but it had paid off.
06:37
And so they know now
06:40
that they can use this strategy
06:42
in future oil spills.
06:44
So in wildlife rescue, as in life,
06:46
we learn from each previous experience,
06:49
and we learn from both our successes
06:51
and our failures.
06:53
And the main thing learned
06:55
during the Apollo Sea rescue in '94
06:57
was that most of those penguins had died
07:00
due to the unwitting use
07:02
of poorly ventilated
07:04
transport boxes and trucks --
07:06
because they just had not been prepared
07:08
to deal with so many oiled penguins at once.
07:10
So in these six years between these two oil spills,
07:12
they built thousands of these well-ventilated boxes,
07:15
and as a result, during the Treasure rescue,
07:18
just 160 penguins died
07:21
during the transport process,
07:24
as opposed to 5,000.
07:26
So this alone was a huge victory.
07:28
Something else learned during the Apollo rescue
07:30
was how to train the penguins
07:32
to take fish freely from their hands,
07:34
using these training boxes.
07:37
And we used this technique again
07:39
during the Treasure rescue.
07:41
But an interesting thing was noted
07:43
during the training process.
07:45
The first penguins
07:47
to make that transition to free feeding
07:49
were the ones that had a metal band on their wing
07:51
from the Apollo Sea spill six years earlier.
07:54
So penguins learn
07:57
from previous experience, too.
07:59
So all of those penguins
08:01
had to have the oil meticulously cleaned from their bodies.
08:03
And it would take two people at least an hour
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just to clean one penguin.
08:09
And when you clean a penguin,
08:11
you first have to spray it with a degreaser.
08:13
And this brings me to my favorite story
08:15
from the Treasure rescue.
08:17
About a year prior to this oil spill,
08:19
a 17 year-old student
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had invented a degreaser.
08:23
And they'd been using it at SANCCOB with great success,
08:25
so they began using it during the Treasure rescue.
08:28
But part way through, they ran out.
08:31
So in a panic, Estelle from SANCCOB called the student
08:34
and said, "Please, you have to make more."
08:37
So he raced to the lab
08:39
and made enough to clean the rest of the birds.
08:41
So I just think it is the coolest thing
08:44
that a teenager
08:46
invented a product
08:48
that helped save the lives
08:50
of thousands of animals.
08:52
So what happened to those 20,000 oiled penguins?
08:54
And was Silvia Gaus right?
08:57
Should we routinely euthanize
08:59
all oiled birds
09:01
because most of them are going to die anyway?
09:03
Well she could not be more wrong.
09:05
After half a million hours
09:08
of grueling volunteer labor,
09:10
more than 90 percent of those oiled penguins
09:13
were successfully returned to the wild.
09:15
And we know from follow-up studies
09:18
that they have lived just as long
09:20
as never-oiled penguins,
09:22
and bred nearly as successfully.
09:24
And in addition, about 3,000 penguin chicks
09:27
were rescued and hand-raised.
09:30
And again, we know from long-term monitoring
09:32
that more of these hand-raised chicks
09:35
survive to adulthood and breeding age
09:38
than do parent-raised chicks.
09:40
So, armed with this knowledge,
09:42
SANCCOB has a chick-bolstering project.
09:44
And every year they rescue and raise abandoned chicks,
09:46
and they have a very impressive
09:49
80 percent success rate.
09:51
And this is critically important
09:54
because, one year ago,
09:56
the African penguin was declared endangered.
09:58
And they could be extinct
10:01
in less than 10 years,
10:03
if we don't do something now to protect them.
10:05
So what did I learn
10:08
from this intense and unforgettable experience?
10:10
Personally, I learned
10:13
that I am capable of handling so much more than I ever dreamed possible.
10:15
And I learned that one person
10:18
can make a huge difference.
10:20
Just look at that 17 year-old.
10:22
And when we come together
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and work as one,
10:26
we can achieve extraordinary things.
10:28
And truly, to be a part of something
10:30
so much larger than yourself
10:32
is the most rewarding experience
10:34
you can possibly have.
10:36
So I'd like to leave you with one final thought
10:39
and a challenge, if you will.
10:41
My mission as the penguin lady
10:43
is to raise awareness and funding
10:45
to protect penguins,
10:47
but why should any of you care about penguins?
10:49
Well, you should care
10:52
because they're an indicator species.
10:54
And simply put, if penguins are dying,
10:56
it means our oceans are dying,
10:58
and we ultimately will be affected,
11:01
because, as Sylvia Earle says,
11:03
"The oceans are our life-support system."
11:05
And the two main threats to penguins today
11:08
are overfishing and global warming.
11:10
And these are two things
11:12
that each one of us
11:14
actually has the power to do something about.
11:16
So if we each do our part,
11:18
together, we can make a difference,
11:20
and we can help keep penguins from going extinct.
11:23
Humans have always been the greatest threat to penguins,
11:26
but we are now their only hope.
11:29
Thank you.
11:31
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Dyan deNapoli - Penguin expert
Call her "the Penguin Lady." Dyan deNapoli educates the world about these fascinating birds.

Why you should listen

While she was the Senior Penguin Aquarist at the New England Aquarium, Dyan deNapoli hand-raised dozens of penguin chicks, presented daily programs about penguins to aquarium visitors, and traveled the globe to work with penguin researchers in the field.

Now, as head of her own educational company, she frequently writes on penguin topics and has served as the onboard penguin expert and guest lecturer on cruise ships visiting the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica. She estimates she has taught about 250,000 people in the US and abroad about penguins.

More profile about the speaker
Dyan deNapoli | Speaker | TED.com