It’s been almost six months since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, setting off the nation’s worst oil spill in history. The disaster was so huge, it’s impact is still being felt today and will continue to leave its mark on marine life for years to come.
The magnitude of damage to the coast and the marine life was so massive, people from all over the world participated in the rescue and cleanup effort. Some of those who answered the call to help are from the Bay Area.
Rebecca Dmytryk and Duane Titus are co-directors of WildRescue out of Moss Landing. They spent five months in the Louisiana Gulf region, along with other wildlife experts from the area. Some of those who left to help have still not returned – there’s plenty of work still to be done in the oil-soaked Gulf region.
Dmytryk said on Friday that their days were long in the hot and humid Louisiana Gulf area and the work they did was grueling. They dropped everything to respond to the disaster, but, she says, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Some of their first efforts went into finding and putting together an area where they could care for injured marine wildlife – mostly birds. They secured an empty warehouse and set up a sort of animal triage center, complete with an ICU, exam bays and washing stations for the birds.
When they were finally given the green light to go search for wildlife that might have come into contact with the oil, they went out in teams and focused on the worst ones first. Some of the birds were so oil-soaked, they couldn’t even walk. Finding oiled birds requires experts, Dmytryk explained, because injured wildlife has a tendency to hide and stay near areas they know.
Once they made it to the triage center, oiled birds had to go through a sort of cooling-off process. The stress of being coated in oil could make the bird stop eating because it might instead spend time preening, trying to get the poisonous substance off its feathers.
The experts took blood from the birds, fed them and gave them water in those first crucial days as they prepared to put them through the washing process. Being washed is a very stressful experience for the birds. Think of it like "getting a bubble bath from a grizzly bear" Dmytryk told me.
The oil showed up in various forms and colors -- from a thinner, more orange-colored type that resembled French dressing, as Dmytryk explained, to the more lava-like sludge and thicker "brownie batter mix" stage.
The dangerous substance was inescapable for much of the wildlife. She captured one photo that shows a bird diving after a fish stranded on a mat of sludge-like oil atop the water. Behind that bird, another is visible with just its head sticking out. Dmytryk and her team saw fish pop out of the water, trying desperately to find relief but the oil was so thick, they couldn’t even penetrate the surface to go back underwater.
She doesn’t know exactly how many birds she helped rescue, rehabilitate and release back into the wild. At least more than 1,000, she guesses.
The cleaned-up birds were released in other states and areas that weren’t affected by the oil disaster. Still, some of those birds released are likely to return to the oil spill region where they rescued.
There are those who contend it's more humane to kill wildlife covered in oil after such a disaster or allow them to die because the effort and risk to save them is too great and the success rate isn't wort the effort. But, Dmytryk says, it’s been proven over the decades that the rescues do help the species.
Heartier types, like pelicans and sea gulls, fare well after they get the attention they need. Survival for the more fragile breeds depends on how much oil they’re covered in and how toxic it is. Many factors play a role in survivability and that, Dmytryk says, is why it's vital tht oiled wildlife recovery and care be overseen by experts.
Even though they’re back in the Bay Area, Dmytryk’s work in the Gulf region is not done. Her time now will be spent writing letters to officials as she tries to keep attention focused on the needs still left unmet in the area.
“Working with the animals wasn’t the hardest part,” Dmytryk said. “ It was the politics.”
Dmytryk and her colleagues will be giving talks about their experiences in the Gulf region. She’s also helping to raise awareness and financial help for the effort by selling T-shirts she designed with images of birds that were recovered during the spill, including a few remarkable individuals, like the youngest pelican, which they nicknamed "Micro."
The images of oiled birds from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are firmly imprinted on her mind, Dmytryk said. They don’t keep her up at night anymore but they are her drive to make sure the accident is not forgotten.