THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Animal rescuers try to stay ahead of oil tide

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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BURAS, LA. — A brown pelican, its delicate feathers layered with gooey black oil, squirmed as a veterinarian held its long beak closed and plunged the bird into a black sink bubbling over with Dawn dishwashing soap.

Within 45 minutes, the bird was clean — and headed for a blow dry. Then it would join other de-oiled pelicans in recovery at “Pelican Island,’’ a large plywood cage located in a sort of MASH unit for birds suffering from the biggest oil contamination in the nation’s history.

Until now, the number of oiled animals plucked from the crude-slicked Gulf of Mexico and its shore has been perplexingly small: more than 140 birds and 26 turtles by yesterday. Scientists believe that the location of the oil spill far from shore, as well as favorable weather, has limited the visible death toll thus far.

But environmental officials are bracing for a rise in animal casualties as the viscous goo begins to infiltrate coastal areas and on-water rescue efforts ramp up.

Oil-coated pelican eggs were discovered this week at Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Just yesterday afternoon, 60 oiled birds were discovered at the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery in Louisiana.

Jellyfish are mired in a chocolate syrup-like layer on the water surface near the leak, one on-water rescue veterinarian said yesterday. There is so much thick oil that it takes an eagle eye to find the dark-colored turtles immersed in it.

“The turtles are out there, but we may be missing a lot because they are so hard to see,’’ said Charles Innis, head veterinarian for the New England Aquarium.

Innis, who arrived Monday in Louisiana, stood yesterday at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. Nearby was a set of blue children’s pools, each with a recovering oiled turtle in it. He is helping to detoxify the turtles, sometimes by inserting a tube in their throats and administering a compound to soak up any toxins they may have ingested.

“We are worried,’’ he said.

. Yesterday, as BP tried again to plug the gushing oil, frustration grew among the public as sheens of oil were reported some 10 miles off Florida.

Officials are worried not only about how the oil on the surface is harming wildlife, but also about oil under the surface, in prime fish habitat.

They also do not know how dispersants used underwater to break up the oil will affect sea life. Officials say they have not spotted any fish kills thus far, and it will take time to analyze tissue samples of dead animals to discover whether they were harmed by dispersants.

So far, the oil has remained largely offshore and away from critical bird nesting grounds and out of the public eye.

“For most of us, things are out of sight, out of mind,’’ said Barbara Schroeder, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sea turtle coordinator, who is overseeing the sea turtle response in the Gulf. “But the things that are happening out of sight are just as significant or even more significant than what we are seeing.’’

In the immediate aftermath of the April 20 explosion that led to the oil leak, wildlife disaster experts expected to see mass strandings of marine animals on beaches and widespread bird deaths. But that did not happen.

The weather has helped. Winds have not pushed the oil onto critical bird nesting grounds, and the warm weather also may be helping oiled birds stay alive.

In cold weather, oil-coated birds lose the critical insulating properties of their feathers and many die, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But the Gulf air has been steamy, probably allowing many to live longer, although they may still be ingesting oil as they preen feathers.

“We’ve been fortunate, too, although I do think there are animals we have not recovered,’’ said Michael Ziccardi, a University of California, Davis veterinarian coordinating sea turtle and marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the Gulf. “What we don’t know is, are we collecting every one out of five, or 10, or 25 [oiled animals], or how many?’’

Starting this week, a helicopter has been flying every morning in good weather to search for sea turtle habitat, indicated by lines of algal mats, near the leak site. Boats then rush to those areas to look for animals. So far, the algae patches have been found 30 to 40 miles off shore, about 15 miles from the leaking well, said Brian Stacy, a NOAA veterinarian.

“The turtles are difficult to see but easy to catch,’’ said Stacy, who is conducting on-water rescues. Stacy said all the turtles found so far have been alive, a good sign, but the spill is extensive.

“The turtles we are finding have mouths that are full of oil,’’ Stacy said. “It’s a thick mousse.’’

Thus far, there are two main animal treatment centers: one in Buras, for birds, and the Audubon Institute, in New Orleans, for turtles. More will be created if needed, officials say.

At the bird MASH unit, workers this week have been readying plywood cages lined with white cotton sheets for birds. Many come in with hardened oil, and warm canola oil is worked through their feathers before they are washed.

Rescue workers have to be careful while helping animals, lest they hurt healthy birds in the process of saving an injured one or trample marshland that could funnel oil into critical nesting grounds, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

The workers must also carefully document their time and their findings, which will be used in part to determine the cost of natural resource damages.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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