Monday, February 14, 2011

In Love with Penguins

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column each Thursday in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

The penguin exhibit at the New England Aquarium is one of my favorite places. I could spend hours watching them. They are chatty, loyal, energetic and annoying and well, they are a lot like most of my friends.

On our trip to Atlanta two years ago we made sure not to miss the penguins at the Georgia Aquarium. There you view them through glass bubbles – nearly face-to-face.

It seems everyone loves penguins these days. When we found out our daughter’s fiance had a fascination with penguins as a child we began to find penguin-themed tchotchkes everywhere we looked. But while he gets at least one penguin in his stocking each year, we’ve been careful not to overdo. After all, we want him to join our family.

What I didn’t know about penguins until recently is that some can be loud, some can be fickle and all can be smelly. And they are very much at risk in the world, specifically off the coast of South Africa.

In 1910 it is estimated that there were 1.5 million penguins living off the South African coast. In the century since then commercial fishing has forced penguins to forage farther afield in an ocean polluted by the shipping industry. Additionally, for years humans removed precious penguin guano, or their nesting material, from the islands off the coast. Also, for years penguin eggs were removed and sold as a delicacy (until it became unlawful.)

Today, only 10% of the African penguin population remains.

In the forty years between 1966 and 2006 nearly fifty tankers have been damaged or have sunk off the coast of South Africa. Fifteen of these ships have caused major oil spills. Each of those spills has devastated some portion of the penguin population.

In 1994 a tanker named the Apollo Sea sank. The spill from that tragedy oiled about 10,000 penguins, half of which were lost.

In 2000 the MV Treasure, an iron ore tanker, sank between the Robben and Dassen islands. Nearly 40,000 penguins, in the midst of their breeding cycle, were affected. In the end 19,000 of the birds were cleaned and another 20,000 were temporarily moved out of danger.

41% of the world’s African penguin population was contaminated in that one oil spill. One tanker. 75,000 African penguins.

“The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill, and the Inspiring Story of the World’s Largest Animal Rescue” by Dyan deNapoli tells the story of their liberation.

This book, as they say, had me at “hello.” The very first chapter describes a penguin’s fight for survival from the moment his amazing coat of feathers comes in contact with oil from a tanker spill through his struggle for survival. It is a devastating read but a compelling one.

A penguin-educator and author, deNapoli got her start as a volunteer and intern at the New England Aquarium in the 1990s. She wasn’t always obsessed with penguins; she was more of a dolphin fanatic most of her childhood and young adulthood. Her parents gave her a special thirtieth birthday adventure in 1992 and she spent four weeks on an Earthwatch expedition in Hawaii where she chose to work with her favorite creature, dolphins.

Very soon after arriving home from her quest, deNapoli enrolled at Mount Ida College in Newton to pursue a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. She ended up at the NE Aquarium on an internship where 35 African penguins and 25 Rockhopper penguins changed her life.

In 2000, deNapoli was working as a staff member of the Penguin Department at the NE Aquarium when the call for help was sounded in June of 2000. The MV Treasure had spilled 1,300 gallons of oil off the coast of Cape Town. Within hours of the spill, experts volunteered from around the world and they arrived at a train repair warehouse in Cape Town to participate in one of the biggest rescue and rehab operations on the planet.

The rescue efforts were overseen by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Organized in 1968, SANCCOB has rescued over 85,000 seabirds in the past 47 years.

deNapoli spent three months in Cape Town helping to rehabilitate the birds and reintroduce them to their wild environment. Today, she lives on the north shore and spends her time educating children and adults about this awesome African bird.

“Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antartica” by Fen Montaigne (2010) chronicles another type of penguin, the Adelie species. Author Montaigne spent five months with scientist Bill Fraser on the harsh and austere northwestern Antarctica peninsula. Climate change is affecting Antarctica faster than any other place on Earth and Fraser has seen it firsthand since he arrived there in 1974 to study the continent. Like dominos, the species in this part of the world are falling prey to the changes that global warming has brought. The Adelie penguin’s feeding grounds are diminishing and the Gentoo penguins are becoming the dominant species.

If you’d like to educate the youngest generations, those that will make the differences in years to come, there are many children’s books describing the lives and plight of penguins. For help searching in the Minuteman catalog for these titles or for placing requests for books, please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,