Dead animals have been found almost daily since a pipeline failed May 19, releasing thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean and beaches of central California. While it will take years for scientists to gauge the spill's effects on the ecosystem, rescue workers are taking more immediate action by rescuing animals affected by the spill.
Elephant seals and California sea lions may not like being at SeaWorld San Diego’s Oiled Wildlife Care Center, the primary care facility for sea mammals covered in oil, but it offers their best chance for survival.
Jody Westberg, part of a team of people who have been working nonstop on the animals' behalf, pointed to two of the most severely oiled animals at the care site.
"This sea lion should be a beautiful reddish color," she said, "and what we’re actually seeing is little glimmering spots of that beautiful reddish tone of its fur, but the rest is coated in what looks like black tar.”
Westberg said the rescue effort is hard on the crew, "physically, emotionally, mentally. We’re putting a lot of time effort and energy into getting these animals better, and to see them this impacted, you know, it breaks your heart a little bit.”
All the birds and animals need to be stabilized first, then washed, said SeaWorld San Diego veterinarian Todd Schmitt. “We want to wash [the oil] off them so they don’t continue to absorb it through their skin or continue to inhale" the fumes, which he said can damage their lungs and cause long-term effects. If a female absorbs the oil, her first pup afterward may not survive.
The oil spill is adding another layer of stress to the sea lions off California’s coast. There have been an unusually large number of the marine mammals, especially pups, washing up on beaches this year, starving and stranded.
“There is not a food fish available, so they are scouring the environment to find any type of food that they can,” Schmitt said.
One of the oiled sea lions rescued at the San Diego facility died from sucking in regurgitated red tuna crabs, which is not part of its normal diet. What caused the death of a second animal is still unknown.
“There’s a lot of animals that we may not be seeing that are part of this oil spill that are not being recovered, and they may be dying out at sea,” Schmitt said.
Effect on pelicans
Sea birds, especially brown pelicans, are also feeling the effects of the oil spill. Their feathers normally trap a layer of air that insulates them and keeps them warm. But oil on the feathers destroys that insulation, and the bird’s body temperature drops to a dangerous level.
The oil from the recent spill is heavy and difficult to wash off. But fortunately, veterinarians say, pelicans are hardy creatures.
Whether the rescuers care for seabirds or sea lions, their goal is the same: to get these animals cleaned, healthy and back into the wild.