Last week, several dozen dead and dying Magellanic penguins were discovered on beaches throughout south Brazil, apparent victims of an oil spill. So far more than 140 penguins have been transfered to animal care facilities to be cleaned and rehabilitated, while an untold number more have already perished from contaminated waters. If this fact alone weren't cause enough for concern, what's more troubling is that it's hardly an isolated incident. For the last ten years, with disturbing regularity, penguins have been washing ashore starving or covered in oil. And while the origins of these annual mass deaths remain officially a mystery -- one biologists believes he knows the sinister truth behind them.
A Decade of Mysterious Penguin Deaths
Back in 2001, the BBC reported that hundreds of penguins either died or required treatment after "migrating south when they swam through the spill near Argentina in July and August this year." Even then, the article noted that "scientists rescue 300 penguins every year" in the region without putting forth an explanation as to why.
Then, in the summer of 2002, New Scientist described how biologists were puzzling over the starving deaths of more than two-thousand Rockhopper and Magellanic penguins found washed ashore on the Falkland Islands, some 250 miles from Argentina. According to the report, the cause of the deaths was undetermined, quoting one bioligists as saying "Something weird is going on in the Falkland's this year."
In July of 2003, Brazilian media reported that dozens of Magellanic penguins had been rescued from beaches in southern Brazil, again covered in oil. More than half died. The only attempt at an explanation was provided by the veteranarian treating them, who suggested that an oil spill off shore was the likely culprit.
Again, in late summer 2004, around 280 oil-covered penguins were found washed on a beach in south Brazil. The report from Brazilian news outlet G1 Globo offered no guess as to the source of the oil.
In 2006, National Geographic reported that "hundreds of dead Magellanic penguins covered in oil have washed ashore in recent days on the coast of Argentina." Evidently, no oil leaks were reported from barges operated nearby. "Where the oil is coming from, we're not entirely sure," said one biologist.
By July of 2007, LiveScience reported that "hundreds of oil-covered Magellanic penguins have surfaced off the Atlantic coast of South America in the past few weeks." According to wildlife officials, a yearly trend of mysterious oil spills was killing thousands of penguins annually.
After an oil spill in 2008, which resulted in dozens of Magellanic penguins washing ashore in Uruguay, the World Conservation Society reported that an estimated 40,000 of the 'near threatened' birds "die in Argentina and the Falkland Islands each year due to oil pollution."
Despite the growing recognition that mysterious oil spills were likely killing birds in the region, it did little to curb the problem. In 2009, RiaNovosti reported "the bodies of more than1,000 Magellanic and Humboldt penguins have been washed ashore" in southern Chile. The cause of death? "Not yet known."
Last year, in July 2010, ABC News reported "hundreds of penguins that apparently starved to death are washing up on the beaches of Brazil," and, again, that biologists weren't entirely sure why. Overfishing in the region was put forth as a theory behind the deaths, but a definitive explanation remained elusive.
Oil Dumped by an Illegal Fleet?
With the latest mass-deaths and strandings of Magellanic penguins in south Brazil, the nation's environmental policing agency, in association with a center of marine studies (Ceclimar), are vowing to investigate the source of the oil found on the birds' feathers.
Biologist Maurício Tavares, however, believes that the forces behind the persistent environmental disasters are far more sinister than many might expect -- indicating that they're the result of a clandestine operation to ship oil illegally across the Atlantic.
"These are illegal fleets are that frequently active at sea, but which we cannot detect," Tavares tells Zero Hora. "We received some animals every year. Now, we have many animals all along the coast, revealing that this is not something small."
Penguins in Preventable Peril
Magellanic penguins are classified as a 'threatened species' due to the threats they face from polluted waters and a diminishing food supply, yet the two may not be entirely unrelated. Interestingly, the majority of these mass die-offs occur from June to August, winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when the birds swim across shipping lanes heading north in search of food.
The amount of oil that has been dumped, leaked, or spilled -- unintentionally or otherwise -- is evidently sufficient to strip the penguins' feathers of their natural waterproof. The effects of this contamination, therefore, could conceivably be enough to impact other marine species, including the Magellanic penguin's food supply, which has largely been thought to be diminished due to overfishing and climate change.
Whatever the origin of the oil spills may be, any scenario in which they cannot be prevented must be deemed unacceptable. After a decade of disturbingly regular penguin deaths, and a decade of scrubbing oil from the wings of the dying -- why do we still not know who or what is putting it there?