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  • For as long as I can remember,

  • I have felt a very deep connection

  • to animals and to the ocean.

  • And at this age,

  • my personal idol

  • was Flipper the dolphin.

  • And when I first learned about endangered species,

  • I was truly distressed to know

  • that every day animals were being wiped off the face of this Earth forever.

  • And I wanted to do something to help,

  • but I always wondered,

  • what could one person possibly do to make a difference?

  • And it would be 30 years,

  • but I would eventually get the answer to that question.

  • When these heartbreaking images of oiled birds

  • finally began to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico last year

  • during the horrific BP oil spill,

  • a German biologist by the name of Silvia Gaus

  • was quoted as saying,

  • "We should just euthanize all oiled birds

  • because studies have shown

  • that fewer than one percent of them

  • survive after being released."

  • And I could not disagree more.

  • And in addition, I believe that every oiled animal

  • deserves a second chance at life.

  • And I want to tell you

  • why I feel so strongly about this.

  • On June 23rd, 2000,

  • a ship named the Treasure

  • sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa,

  • spilling 1,300 tons of fuel,

  • which polluted the habitats

  • of nearly half the entire world population

  • of African penguins.

  • Now the ship sank between Robben Island to the south

  • and Dassen Island to the north.

  • And these are two of the penguins' main breeding islands.

  • And exactly six years and three days earlier,

  • on June 20th, 1994,

  • a ship named the Apollo Sea sank near Dassen Island,

  • oiling 10,000 penguins --

  • half of which died.

  • Now when the Treasure sank in 2000,

  • it was the height of the best breeding season

  • scientists had ever recorded for the African penguin --

  • which at the time, was listed as a threatened species.

  • And soon, nearly 20,000 penguins

  • were covered with this toxic oil.

  • And the local seabird rescue center, named SANCCOB,

  • immediately launched a massive rescue operation --

  • and this soon would become

  • the largest animal rescue ever undertaken.

  • Now at the time, I was working down the street.

  • I was a penguin aquarist at the New England Aquarium.

  • And exactly 11 years ago yesterday,

  • the phone rang in the penguin office.

  • And with that call, my life would change forever.

  • It was Estelle van der Meer calling from SANCCOB,

  • saying, "Please come help.

  • We have thousands of oiled penguins

  • and thousands of willing,

  • but completely inexperienced, volunteers.

  • And we need penguin experts to come train and supervise them."

  • So two days later,

  • I was on a plane headed for Cape Town

  • with a team of penguin specialists.

  • And the scene inside of this building

  • was devastating and surreal.

  • In fact, many people compared it to a war zone.

  • And last week, a 10 year-old girl asked me,

  • "What did it feel like

  • when you first walked into that building

  • and saw so many oiled penguins?"

  • And this is what happened.

  • I was instantly transported

  • back to that moment in time.

  • Penguins are very vocal birds

  • and really, really noisy.

  • And so I expected to walk into this building

  • and be met with this cacophony

  • of honking and braying and squawking,

  • but instead,

  • when we stepped through those doors and into the building,

  • it was eerily silent.

  • So it was very clear

  • these were stressed, sick, traumatized birds.

  • The other thing that was so striking

  • was the sheer number of volunteers.

  • Up to 1,000 people a day

  • came to the rescue center,

  • and eventually, over the course of this rescue,

  • more than 12 and a half thousand volunteers

  • came from all over the world to Cape Town

  • to help save these birds.

  • And the amazing thing

  • was that not one of them had to be there --

  • yet they were.

  • So for the few of us that were there in a professional capacity,

  • this extraordinary volunteer response

  • to this animal crisis

  • was profoundly moving and awe-inspiring.

  • So the day after we arrived,

  • two of us from the aquarium were put in charge of room two,

  • and room two had more than 4,000 oiled penguins in it.

  • Now mind you, three days earlier,

  • we had 60 penguins under our care,

  • so we were definitely overwhelmed

  • and just a bit terrified -- at least I was.

  • Personally, I really didn't know

  • if I was capable of handling

  • such a monstrous task.

  • And collectively,

  • we really didn't know if we could pull this off.

  • Because we all knew

  • that just six years earlier,

  • half as many penguins had been oiled and rescued

  • and only half of them had survived.

  • So would it be humanly possible

  • to save this many oiled penguins?

  • We just did not know.

  • But what gave us hope

  • were these incredibly dedicated and brave volunteers --

  • three of whom here are force-feeding penguins.

  • And you may notice they're wearing very thick gloves.

  • And what you should know about African penguins

  • is that they have razor-sharp beaks.

  • And before long,

  • our bodies were covered head to toe

  • with these nasty wounds

  • inflicted by the terrified penguins.

  • Now the day after we arrived,

  • a new crisis began to unfold.

  • The oil slick was now moving north towards Dassen Island,

  • and the rescuers despaired,

  • because they knew if the oil hit,

  • it would not be possible to rescue any more oiled birds.

  • And there really were no good solutions.

  • But then finally,

  • one of the researchers threw out this crazy idea.

  • He said, "Okay, why don't we try and collect

  • the birds at the greatest risk of getting oiled" --

  • they collected 20,000 --

  • "and we'll ship them 500 miles up the coast

  • to Port Elizabeth in these open air trucks

  • and release them into the clean waters there

  • and let them swim back home."

  • (Laughter)

  • So three of those penguins -- Peter, Pamela and Percy --

  • wore satellite tags,

  • and the researchers crossed their fingers and hoped

  • that by the time they got back home,

  • the oil would be cleaned up from their islands.

  • And luckily, the day they arrived,

  • it was.

  • So it had been a huge gamble, but it had paid off.

  • And so they know now

  • that they can use this strategy

  • in future oil spills.

  • So in wildlife rescue, as in life,

  • we learn from each previous experience,

  • and we learn from both our successes

  • and our failures.

  • And the main thing learned

  • during the Apollo Sea rescue in '94

  • was that most of those penguins had died

  • due to the unwitting use

  • of poorly ventilated

  • transport boxes and trucks --

  • because they just had not been prepared

  • to deal with so many oiled penguins at once.

  • So in these six years between these two oil spills,

  • they built thousands of these well-ventilated boxes,

  • and as a result, during the Treasure rescue,

  • just 160 penguins died

  • during the transport process,

  • as opposed to 5,000.

  • So this alone was a huge victory.

  • Something else learned during the Apollo rescue

  • was how to train the penguins

  • to take fish freely from their hands,

  • using these training boxes.

  • And we used this technique again

  • during the Treasure rescue.

  • But an interesting thing was noted

  • during the training process.

  • The first penguins

  • to make that transition to free feeding

  • were the ones that had a metal band on their wing

  • from the Apollo Sea spill six years earlier.

  • So penguins learn

  • from previous experience, too.

  • So all of those penguins

  • had to have the oil meticulously cleaned from their bodies.

  • And it would take two people at least an hour

  • just to clean one penguin.

  • And when you clean a penguin,

  • you first have to spray it with a degreaser.

  • And this brings me to my favorite story

  • from the Treasure rescue.

  • About a year prior to this oil spill,

  • a 17 year-old student

  • had invented a degreaser.

  • And they'd been using it at SANCCOB with great success,

  • so they began using it during the Treasure rescue.

  • But part way through, they ran out.

  • So in a panic, Estelle from SANCCOB called the student

  • and said, "Please, you have to make more."

  • So he raced to the lab

  • and made enough to clean the rest of the birds.

  • So I just think it is the coolest thing

  • that a teenager

  • invented a product

  • that helped save the lives

  • of thousands of animals.

  • So what happened to those 20,000 oiled penguins?

  • And was Silvia Gaus right?

  • Should we routinely euthanize

  • all oiled birds

  • because most of them are going to die anyway?

  • Well she could not be more wrong.

  • After half a million hours

  • of grueling volunteer labor,

  • more than 90 percent of those oiled penguins

  • were successfully returned to the wild.

  • And we know from follow-up studies

  • that they have lived just as long

  • as never-oiled penguins,

  • and bred nearly as successfully.

  • And in addition, about 3,000 penguin chicks

  • were rescued and hand-raised.

  • And again, we know from long-term monitoring

  • that more of these hand-raised chicks

  • survive to adulthood and breeding age

  • than do parent-raised chicks.

  • So, armed with this knowledge,

  • SANCCOB has a chick-bolstering project.

  • And every year they rescue and raise abandoned chicks,

  • and they have a very impressive

  • 80 percent success rate.

  • And this is critically important

  • because, one year ago,

  • the African penguin was declared endangered.

  • And they could be extinct

  • in less than 10 years,

  • if we don't do something now to protect them.

  • So what did I learn

  • from this intense and unforgettable experience?

  • Personally, I learned

  • that I am capable of handling so much more than I ever dreamed possible.

  • And I learned that one person

  • can make a huge difference.

  • Just look at that 17 year-old.

  • And when we come together

  • and work as one,