Travelling abroad can often feel like an escape from reality. It's a liberating feeling to be a visitor, someone who does not need to take responsibility. Just walk away from the dinner table and leave the counter to locals, stroll further along the beach and watch the sunset. Sometimes it so elusive it feels like a dream.
16 years ago, on the evening of 15 February 1996, the oil tanker Sea Empress was entering the Milford Haven Waterway. She was carrying 130,000 tonnes of crude oil. But she never reached the port.
The journey I made to Milford Haven that early spring was not an escape from reality. It was a trip to reality. Even if I wish it were only a bad dream, I know I won’t wake up from this one.
The temperature at home was below zero and I didn’t know what to expect when I left Sweden. But on the train from Bristol I realized that spring was early and quite comfortable at this latitude. It was a few hours' journey to Milford Haven, and as we were moving along the coast I kept the conductor company, discussing the long rows of stationed caravans.
- It will probably not be that many tourists this year, he said with an empty gaze in his eyes. I looked at his serious face.
- Did you grow up here? Suddenly he was digging deep in his pocket. He took out a small, wrinkled train schedule. - Here, he said, pointing at a small settlement located along the coast, not far from the place I was heading for. An area I knew was affected by the disaster. - It is a beautiful coastline, I said, trying to fill the significant silence he left hanging in the air. His eye was caught for a moment before he finally replied. - Yes, it is...was.
A drop of oil spilled into the ocean does not destroy a coastline. And a dead seabird on a shore in Wales will not reduce the great colonies around the world. But everything that happens to an individual will be measured on his or her own personal disaster scale. Just like you and me, everyone lives to live.
Milford Haven in not only the home of 13,000 people. The coastline is also the home of hundred thousands of animals. Millions when the nesting and migrating seabirds arrive. Seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales surround the islands, and if you would count the fish, crabs, shellfish and invertebrates it’s way over billions.
The Sea Empress disaster occurred when she was entering the waterway at St. Ann’s Head, heading for the Texaco oil refinery. She was sailing against the outgoing tide, when suddenly pushed off course by the current. Hitting rocks in the channel and were grounded right in the middle of Britain’s only coastal national park and in one of only three marine nature reserves.
72, 000 tonnes of crude oil (twice as much as Exxon Valdez!) leaked out and smeared over 200 kilometres of shoreline.
When I stepped of the train at the end station, I realized it was one of many steps I would take on this stained path.
When a major disaster occurs that is too large for us to perceive, we have two choices. Either we choose not to see. Probably cause we do not possess eyes big enough to look a major disaster in the face. A lot of people choose to turn their head away if it’s a situation they can’t grasp.
The other choice is to except and adapt to our own limitations, and realize that we are individuals - who can help other individuals. And it matter!
- I have been waiting for this for twenty years, was the first thing she said as I entered the room. – Here, take this! Was the second, as I was handed a cardboard box with two black birds in it.
Her name is Jean Haines. Seventy years old, wearing a lab coat, old fashion square glasses (think 70’s), large blue rubber gloves and oil stained mobile phone. Her farm, rebuilt into to a rehabilitation center for wild animals called The Oiled Bird Center – Pembrokeshire. For a moment I got the feeling I was right in the middle of Beatrix Potter's wonderful world. Until…
- More birds! Another phone call, another load of birds. No, this is not Potter’s fairy tale.
I try to get her attention between the calls. – I’m here to help. I’m a volunteer from Sweden, and I followed the cardboard boxes to your house.
– We need help, all the help we can get, she said as she was directing people and birds with both hands. Frankly, it felt more like I was in their way wherever I was, but she pointed out that I was needed.
- I have washed birds for 20 years and I have fought with government and shipping companies for years. We all knew this was going to happen. Oil tanks pass here all the time. But this time… it is too many birds.
The next minute I have another box in my hand and Jean disappears for a while. I lift the lid gently. Two black mallards twisting and turning on a soiled newspaper. Every single millimetre of their bodies is drenched in oil. Jean returns with a note in her hand. It’s a route description.
- This is where you go. Texaco. Talk to John Hayes!
Milford Haven is the second largest oil port in Europe. Texaco, the 3rd largest oil company in the US. Sea Empress was heading for Texaco. And so were I, wondering…
Since Texaco is an oil company, there will obviously be a conflict when it is mentioned in a context like this.
- Was it their oil? Yes.
- Was it their fault? I don’t know? Probably, at lest part of it. But honestly, the moment I stepped through the door and met john I stopped wondering.
John Hayes, an engineer at Texaco with a sincere and deeply rooted interest in animals. A likable man, with a warm smile and a scar from the cheekbone to eye. And he could see that I was studying it. – It’s the Red-throated Diver. You better be careful when you’re washing them, they can go for your eyes.
The Red-throated Diver is a migratory aquatic bird with a long sharp bill. They were some of the oil victims. John welcomed me and told me about the new premises in Milford Haven's outskirts that currently were rebuilt into a temporary rehabilitation center. Most of the birds were transported there before the washing. The facility inside the Texaco area had quickly become overwhelmed with birds, which wasn’t surprising.
What was surprising, was the fact that there even was a bird rescue facility on the area…
- Since it's Sunday there's also a lot of volunteers helping us, but tomorrow we will needed help. We will be short of people in week. Not short of birds though. I will send someone to pick you up.
Despite my eager to help I understood the situation. And since the hour was getting late, I dragged myself back to the hotel and got ready for an early morning.
Inventing the wheel
For long time oil tankers have been of "single hull" design. In such vessels, oil in the cargo tanks is separated from the seawater only by a bottom and a side plate.
After the Exxon Valdes disaster in 1989, US Government required that all new oil tankers built for the US were equipped with a ”double hull”. A method invented by Leonardo da Vinci! (Yes, the guy was a genius. It only took the oil companies five hundred years to realize that…) A double hull protects the cargo tanks against damage with a second layer, and reduces the risk of pollution.
In 1992, MARPOL, an international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships, made it mandatory for new oil tankers to have double hulls.
But the old ships were still out there. Ships like the Sea Empress, with a single-hull. So was Prestige, that in 2002 caused the largest environmental disaster in both Spain's and Portugal's history.
December 5, 2003 the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) agreed to accelerate the phase-out deadline of the single hull oil tankers worldwide, amending the MARPOL Convention. Deadline 2010.
Today, 2012, there are still some of them out there, but fortunately it’s an endangered vessel. Thank you Leonardo!
The next morning I find a big car and a big guy on the driveway. Martin, a crewmember on the boat Ocean Defender, run by an organization called Earth Kind. His jeep was already packed with new boxes and he was on his way to the rescue center in Milford Haven. He offered me a lift, but was going to make a stop on the way to see where the oil was closing in.
The long winding road gave an insight into the beautiful, yet dramatic landscape. When we finally stopped I realized some of the difficulties.
Vertical rock walls plunging 90 feet straight down. A powerful swaying ocean is dancing between scarp reefs. And everywhere, high and low on the cliff ledges, the birds are balancing on the edge of danger. The wind was too strong for the boats to venture into the bay, and a large batch of oil was drifting towards us.
In the middle of this stained postcard, I see a solitary bird. She is rocking gently on these black tides, like a tiny ship without a harbour. Her body is already covered with oil. There is nothing we can do but to watch, confirm and contemplate.
On a shelf further up is a lone seagull. The white belly is not white anymore. It is not moving. Not struggling. Just looking out over the sea. The only thing it is expressing is a desire to be left alone. Perhaps to die alone.
I feel completely powerless and ashamed to be part of it. It’s time to go back, and we head for the jeep. I turned around one last time, and my mind take a picture of it. I do not know if it is an attempt to a mental salvation but it leaves me with a memory scar. I still got it hanging there inside my head.
The new temporary rescue center in Milford Haven was funded by Texaco, and the work led by UK's largest animal organization: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Simply called RSPCA, of natural reasons. We unloaded the boxes into a large empty room next to the washing facilities. Empty, aside from wagging boxes, and at the end of a row six figures in white overalls tube feeding birds.
Instinctively, the bird tries to get the oil off its feathers by preening, which results in the animal ingesting the oil and causing severe damage to its internal organs. So in this case the gavage involves activated carbon and nutritional supplements. The coal is used to dampen oil corrosion of the internal organs and the nutritionals to keep the animals alive.
I barely have time to introduce myself when they point at the protective overalls and soon I’m fitted with tubing’s and syringes in my hands. Finally!
In order to tube feed you need to be two, one holding and one feeding. I was teamed up with RSPCA inspector Simon Dix, a man I came to respect more and more during my time in Wales. As a rookie, I could not get a better teacher and mentor.
Most of the birds were Common Scoters, and occasionally some cormorants, a few black guillemots or Red-throated Divers.
– Last night we got 250 birds from Pendine beach, Simon said as he gently placed another scooter in my hands. - And we heard that Wisemans Bridge had been visited by the black gold this morning.
The Common Scoter is a large sea duck, which breeds over the far north of Europe and Asia. It is characterised by its bulky shape and large bill. The male is all black with a bulbous bill, which shows some yellow coloration around the nostrils. The female is a brown bird with pale cheeks. Yet, in this case they where all black! The species has been placed on the RSPB conservation Red List because of a greater than fifty percent decline in this UK breeding population.
Simon said he had seen 28,000 Scoters off the Pendine coast a few weeks ago. Pendine was one of the areas badly hit by the oil, and there was a great concern that many of them were already stranded on the ocean floor.
He prepared us volunteers for a long day, and he was right…
- Scoters! The alarm we all were waiting for. Car by car, box after box, creating a giant maze from the floor to the roof. We worked without pause for hours, and as soon as we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we heard new cars arrive outside the door.
After 900 Scoters we finally get a break. Now they all had their carbon and coffee is waiting for us. Everyone left briskly for the coffee room. I was caught behind, trying to find a way out of the maze. The door slam and suddenly I am all alone, as a human, surrounded by a sound I had not previously perceived. I look around. The room looks like a big warehouse with walls of boxes, stacked all over each other. And then that sound... The sound of bare feet moving back and forth.
Normally you wouldn’t reflect over it, hardly even hear it, the sound of a rocking duck. But when it is over 1,800 feet it forms a strange sound. And together with beaks tapping on cardboard walls, a murmur of mumbling noises, like a large crowd on a public square.
It also makes me think of children. Restless kids, pecking at the cardboard walls trying to get out. Just as innocent and as vivid as children. Wondering why?
They are not supposed to be here. They are the children of the sea. They should be surfing the waves like tiny battleships, greeting the morning sun, and welcome the prime in their lives, the spring.
The Pearl in the shell
The next morning more birds are reported at Pendine Beach. I spend the day working at the center, and in the afternoon I decide to go down to Pendine together with two other volunteers, Chatarina and Mona, to help out collecting birds.
Pendine beach is a very long shoreline with shallow water where large numbers of birds congregate. When we arrive the sun is already low on the horizon. We patrol the beach for hours, waiting for the birds to seek shelter on it as darkness occurred. Many oil-soaked birds lose their buoyancy and beach themselves in their attempt to escape the cold water.
In the twilight a sliver of the moon and a thousand stars that lit up the endless beach. The low tide exposes the soft sand, covered by a pattern of millions of shells. But the high “black tide” is slowly approaching us. In the waves I see the silhouette of a long, black sea monster created by man. Rocking unwilling to the ocean breath.
When I walk along the beach, I think of the beautiful shells. Millions upon millions. A reflection of the stars in the endless sky above. Each shell contained a life, some of them even a pearl. The black gold's value is measured against these, for us, invisible lives. While we chase money and happiness, they lie here and look at the stars.
I wonder who actually finds the pearl in the shell...
Haunted by darkness we begin to loose sight. We realize that time is running out.
Chatarina start running towards the cliffs in the south, Mona and I jump up on the RSPCA jeep going north. As we drive along beach I can see dead birds swaying in the water edge. We approach a group of birds on their way to approach the beach. We drive straight out into the water, between the birds and the sea, forcing them to head for the sand so that we can catch them. If they flee back into the ocean we don’t have a chance. I threw myself of the jeep, ran through the water and manage to get hold of a couple.
When I meet Chatarina she also has two birds. But there are several more still back there. Soaking wet, we decide to give it one more go.
As I wade through the water along the rocks I don’t feel that it’s freezing cold anymore. I’m beyond that point. All I can think about is that this will be last night for many of them on Pendine Beach. Why? Because the oil, that were meant to keep us warm, will drain their life-fuel.
In order to stay warm a bird plumage needs to be intact. When oil sticks to a bird's feathers, it causes them to mat and separate, impairing waterproofing and exposing the animal's sensitive skin. In this case the result is hypothermia, meaning the bird becomes cold. Too cold… A night like this, in the middle of February, is not something you survive with a naked skin.
I search through the shadows one last time, and with one more scoter held against my chest I head back from the black tides. There is nothing more we can do tonight.
The benefit of a doubt
Each bird has to be washed for one to one and a half hours. It’s basically a gentle cleaning process made in 42-degree water (Celsius), mixed with about 2 - 5% Fairy (Procter & Gamble) detergent. Followed up by a thorough shower.
Many birds can’t handle it. The stress is too demanding and the metabolic rate so high that they become too weak to recover. And for every man or woman washing them, it also includes many demanding hours, with a lot of patience and mental strength. Unfortunately it’s easy to get tired and careless after a while. And with so many birds waiting, it is very stressful. But if you forget one small spot, the whole work may be in vain.
We soon realized we had to force-feed a large number of birds before they were washed. That would give them some extra strength. But no matter how hard we tried, it was impossible to escape the fact that many wouldn’t make it…
- Simon. She doesn’t seem to do well. Should we let her go?
Simon stops and looks at the bird. He takes the time needed. Both to study her thoroughly and for own reflections. Even if there were over a thousand of them, he would never treat anyone as if it was just another Scoters. Everyone matters, both the people involved and the animals we treat. For Simon, each bird is an individual who struggles with her own fate, and we have no right to take that away until there is no other option. She rests her head against his chest.
- Give her the benefit of a doubt.
An answer based on a careful assessment and an optimistic mind. Not a blue eyed sensitivity or weakness. No, it’s of pure love and knowledge.
If someone had to be put down it was always done with respect for the individual.
The Scoters were now living together in a large room, separated in smaller sections. We started each day by giving them vitamin supplements and fish. On the door someone had put a note, "Scoters r' us", just like the toy store "Toys r 'us". In this case the pets were drenched in oil.
Over the time we lived and worked with them, we became each other’s protégés, fighting side by side against this devastating black plague.
During the last two days I worked in Milford Haven, a large number of birds were killed and we got many reports from the coast about dead birds floating in to the beaches. But we wouldn't let that take us down. Those who recovered gave us even more joy and that's what makes you never stop fighting. If you don't count what matters then you're lost. Everyone matters, including you who read this at this very moment. We can all tribute to make a change.
The last evening before I was going back to Sweden I was washing birds until midnight. We decided to meet at the harbour pub to take a few beers together before I left. And as usual we soon talked about our friends, "the Scoters." Simon suggested we should make a Viking funeral. If we put every dead Scoter in a floating coffin and set them on fire, we could let them sail out to the Sea Empress in order to lower the ship. As I was picturing the ceremony I was thinking about the past weeks. So closely and intensely, all the strong emotions we had experienced together. It wasn't easy to say goodbye.
When I came back to the hotel and the turned the light out, I still had that picture in front of me, the note on the door; Scoters r’us... That's when I realized it was not just about the Scoters. In a certain way we had all turned in to black birds fighting to preserve the life we love. One part of me will always be dying underneath the stars on Pendine Beach. That is painful insight I will carry with for the rest of my life.
Yet another part of me, did find the pearl hidden in the shell. I experienced the knowledge that all great tragedies occur on an individual level. I developed my ability to see the amazing and wonderful lives hidden right in front of our eyes. And realize that all wars are equal when it’s a struggle for life and death. Even if it’s fought inside a drop of water, were you and I cannot see it.
This might be perceived as a sad story, and of course, in many ways it is. But looking back at all the animals we did save, also the lovely human bonds and support that we shared, there is an important message in this.
The win-win of voluntary work is so rewarding I strongly recommend it if you wish to live a meaningful life. I’m surprised not more people do it, and for you who does – keep up the good work! No matter the cause you work for, you will matter. Everyone matters!
And if you want to take part in, or support, work involving oilbird rescue, there are some useful links below. Get involved!
This is the wildlife reporter, looking back at the war against the black tides in Milford Haven 1996.
Mog Grudd, Stockholm archipelago 2012
International Bird Rescue
Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research