Oil crisis: Northern rockhopper penguins are fed on Tristan after they were transferred from Nightingale Island, where the MS Oliva ran aground.

A team from the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) arrived on Tristan da Cunha last week with expertise, frozen pilchards, vitamins and medicine for the oil-soaked northern rockhopper penguins in the remote stretches of the south Atlantic.

About 20 000 of the endangered penguins are believed to be affected, while hundreds have already died since the bulk carrier MS Oliva, on its way from Brazil to the Far East, ran aground on the formerly pristine Nightingale Island in mid-March, leaking 1 500 tons of heavy oil. Rescuers have had to lay traps around the island to make sure any rats which may have escaped from the ship do not breed on the island and threaten its fragile ecosystem.

The Sanccob team, including CEO Venessa Strauss, arrived on Tuesday aboard the tug Singapore after seven days at sea, bringing everything needed to wash and rehabilitate oiled penguins. Bird rescue operation spokeswoman Katrine Herian, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on Tristan da Cunha, said the five-member Sanccob team, including veterinarian Tertius Gous, met many of the islanders involved in the rehab operation as they started their daily shift “tubing” – giving the dehydrated penguins an electrolyte solution with a tube and syringe – and feeding the penguins.

Herian said the frozen pilchards were being defrosted and fed to the stronger penguins, which were being prepared for “washing” over the weekend. She said each penguin was fed one pilchard for the first day as they had to get used to the change in diet from the local yellowtail and “five fingers” fish fed to them so far.

Each penguin needs about 200g of raw fish a day and until the arrival of the Singapore with 16 tons of pilchards, the daily requirement of 600kg for the 3 000-plus birds transferred to Tristan was provided by island fishermen working with lines from open boats.

Herian said work had begun on installing specialist equipment at the wash-bay facility which would be housed in two government containers close to the rehab shed. Hot water geysers would be installed to remove the heavy bunker oil from the penguins as well as infrared lights in a drying room.

Sanccob logistics manager Mariëtte Hopley said they would be training islanders in the washing of penguins. Herian added Dr Mark Whittington of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, an NGO established on behalf of shipowners to promote an effective response to marine chemical pollution incidents, and Jean-Luc Dardidon of Le Floch Depollution, a company specialising in dealing with the aftermath of oil spills, visited Middle and Nightingale islands to assess the oil remaining in the bays and on the rocks.

A plan would soon be formalised to deal with the remaining oil and prevent further impact on the penguin and other bird colonies. Islanders are also concerned about the impact on the rock lobster fisheries, because this is how they earn their living. - Sunday Argus