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  • Emma Sommerville had just arrived in the Bay of Plenty from Christchurch, after experiencing the Canterbury earthquake disaster, when the Rena ran aground. Having just completed her master’s degree in zoology, specialising in marine life, at the University of Canterbury, she immediately volunteered to help with the bird recovery programme.

    Bird recovery programme

    The bird recovery programme was led by Massey University. Other organisations involved included Maritime New Zealand, Auckland Zoo, International Bird Rescue Group (USA), Te Papa, Department of Conservation (DOC) and volunteers from the public. The programme sought to save birds affected by the oil spill that occurred when the Rena was wrecked on the Astrolabe Reef. The heavy fuel oil that spilled from the Rena resembled thick black tar. Many marine birds and animals were covered in the oil. The birds’ feathers stuck together so they couldn’t fly or swim, which meant they couldn’t feed. Many birds died, but an early rescue meant that many others were saved. Affected birds were brought to the bird recovery programme. These birds included penguins, dotterels, shags, diving petrels and sooty shearwaters.

    Te Maunga Wastewater Treatment Plant supplied temporary tents and pools for the programme, which was located behind Baypark at Mount Maunganui. Massey University supplied a wildlife recovery crate that had been set up 9 years earlier for an event such as this. It was fitted out with washing stations and medications for bird recovery from oil spills.

    Penguin recovery

    Emma was involved in all aspects of the recovery – from cleaning and feeding birds to their rehabilitation and release. She mainly worked with penguins.

    First, the oil had to be meticulously washed off the entire bird. The volunteers always wore gloves so that they wouldn’t get oil on themselves, get pecked by the birds or disrupt the natural oils that were being worked back into the birds’ feathers.

    A special dish-washing detergent from the United States was used in warm water to dislodge the oil. The birds were immersed in the soapy water and workers used toothbrushes to carefully remove every last trace of the oil. Water picks (small tools that sprayed water) were used to clean the birds’ eyes. While thorough, the washing process also needed to be quick to avoid birds swallowing oil while preening.

    The birds were then taken to a separate rinsing area where they were cleaned off with warm water. They were then thoroughly dried using air blowers.

    Each day, the birds were encouraged to swim to help them waterproof their feathers. After getting wet, birds preen their feathers. A gland on the bird’s tail releases its natural oils for waterproofing its feathers. Preening spreads the natural oil over the feathers.

    Giant temporary swimming pools (Para Pools) were set up for this. The birds were initially given 2 half-hour swims daily, extending this to 3 or 4 hours at a time. After every swim, the birds were carefully checked for residual fuel oil and to see that their natural oils were returning. The American team from the International Bird Rescue Group were the experts in this area and did most of the checking to see if the birds could be returned to the wild. This included checking that the birds had put on enough weight.

    Towards the end of the operation, the moulting season began for the penguins, which meant the birds started losing feathers and therefore their natural waterproofing. Penguins do not go into the water at this time, making food more difficult to obtain, so they needed a good amount of fat on their bodies to survive moulting time. Initially, birds were fed minced fish, but as they became stronger, they were given whole fish.

    Every bird was tagged and records kept as to where the bird had come from. The birds were released back to where they were found. Some birds were kept longer because their habitats needed to be cleaned from the oil spill first. Birds from Mōtītī Island were held because fuel oil kept washing up on its shores.

    The most exciting time for Emma was when the birds were released. Sometimes, 50 or 60 birds were released at once. Local hapū joined in, contributing to a special ‘releasing’ ceremony.

    Other birds

    About half the dotterel population from the Bay of Plenty coastline was taken into captivity for their own protection – even though they were not yet oiled. They are an endangered species and only occur in small numbers on this coast. Personnel from the Auckland Zoo took care of the dotterels because they required specialist care. Dotterels are delicate and scare easily. Work with the dotterels was carried out in a no-talking zone.

    The survival rate for affected diving petrels and sooty shearwaters was not good. This was because they are seabirds (not found on shores) and sit out on the water – right in the path of the oil – and many had been oiled for some time before people in boats picked them up.


    Emma also worked in the post-mortem section. People brought in dead birds for examination. Some of these birds were oiled while others had died of natural causes. Records were kept showing the extent of oiling on oiled birds. Many of these had also ingested oil – it was found in their stomachs.

    On the road to recovery

    The Rena Recovery Project was declared complete in July 2015. The project noted that local dotterel and penguin numbers were stable or increasing. The Department of Conservation conducted pest control and restoration work at important breeding sites. New pest control programmes were established or augmented at six sites while other pest-free sites in the Bay of Plenty were monitored and maintained.

    Nature of science

    Different groups of scientists and others came together to share their expertise to help with the recovery of the birds. Scientists often share their ideas and work together for a common cause.

    Related content

    Efforts by the science and local communities to clean up and restore the area and the effects it had on these communities are explained in these articles:

    Activity ideas

    These two activities are associated with the clean-up effort, why try them with your students:

    • Responding to Rena uses video resources to help students consider short-term and long-term responses to an environmental disaster.
    • Cleaning up oil in water experiments with sorbents, dispersants and cleaning oil from bird feathers.

    Useful links

    The Maritime New Zealand website contains many articles and images about the Rena disaster, start with the Spill response case study. For images see the Rena gallery.

      Published 11 January 2012, Updated 8 August 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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