The environmental impacts of ocean oil spills are often incalculable, but for better or for worse the effects on wildlife are well-known. New Zealand’s coastal waters are home or breeding grounds to nearly 85 species of seabirds, and during breeding season the situation becomes increasingly desperate as the birds dive in and out of the water to find food for their chicks.
The “little blue penguin”, or “fairy penguin” (named for both its diminutive size and unusual coloration) is particularly vulnerable. A penguin’s feathers differ from other birds, in the way they create a protective, velcro-like waterproof layer that even a drop of oil can damage. They are among the species currently receiving care in an unusual manner from volunteers on site in New Zealand and from worldwide donations.
When first rescued the birds are too stressed to be scrubbed immediately, and their oil soaked feathers pose a threat as they try to preen themselves and thereby ingest the toxins into their bodies. A solution discovered during a previous oil spill crisis was to cover them in snug fitting wool jumpers, (as sweaters are called in New Zealand and other Commonwealth Countries) which would keep them warm both before and after being cleaned.
A “call to needles” went out among the local knitting community for penguin jumpers, initiated by the Natural Yarn Store Skeinz in Napier, New Zealand. The request went viral, reaching “critical mass” in an amazingly short period of time, with the story picked up by International and local news agencies alike .
Edw Lynch writes that this isn’t the first enthusiastic response to such a request, stating the The Tasmanian Conservation Trust made a similar request in 2001 after an oil spill and received 1,500% more than they asked for!
While the request was to use leftover wool scraps and recycled sweaters for this purpose, it’s amazing to see the obvious love that went into each of these gifts. There were various patterns distributed on the internet, with the basic requirements of 100% wool and a tight weave, as the penguins’ sharp toes can get caught in openings, allowing them to “undress” prematurely.
Chris Turner photo above via Audubonmagazine.org