“Right now, it’s quiet,” Jay Holcomb says on his cell phone from the shore in Louisiana.
But is it the quiet before the storm?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “The oil’s already starting to hit the shore. I don’t know how bad and how far it’s going to go.”
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico April 20, millions of gallons of oil have leaked into the sea. And while visions of the Exxon Valdez disaster, with shores full of dying, black-covered birds and marine life have rattled in everyone’s heads ever since, the oil has—thankfully—stayed off-shore. Until now.
“We have one bird in already,” says Holcomb. “A Northern Gannet.” An elegant, white bird with black-tipped wings that has no business mucking around in mankind’s black gold.
That one bird may never know how lucky it was to land in the hands of the best of the best.
Holcomb, the executive director of California’s International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) since 1988, was on the ground after the Exxon Valdez cracked its hull, and has overseen more than 150 oil spill relief efforts around the globe. So whether they know it or not, in times of crisis, he’s our feathered friends’ best friend.
Holcomb (below, left) and his team were called into action on Thursday and hit the ground running in Louisiana Friday—prepping for the worst.
“You pay attention to what the currents and the wind are doing. There’s all kinds of sophisticated equipment to track this stuff. But the reality is, as much as we all had our fingers crossed this week, mother nature is tricky,” Holcomb says. “We have high tides. I could say, fairly certainly, that the potential for this being massive is there.”
It’s why the IBRRC has joined forces with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research of Delaware and local organizations to mobilize in advance of the potential onslaught—getting washing trailers ready in more than one spot along the coast, and accepting shipments of cases of Dawn dishwashing detergent (still the preferred oiled-bird cleanser after all these years), donated by Proctor & Gamble.
“There’s a lot of oil in the water … but it’s how it comes to shore, and where it comes to shore that makes the difference. And that still remains to be seen,” Holcomb says. “The potential is here for a significant catastrophic event.”
In the years since the Valdez spill—way back in 1989—one would think that the oil industry would have put enough precautions in place to prevent a disaster of that magnitude from happening again. And they have. But Holcomb, for one, isn’t surprised to see it happen.
“I’m not surprised. When you’re in the biz of dealing with oil spills, nothing is a surprise,” he tells Tonic. “But with this? Here’s the deal: The technology to pump this kind of oil, the offshore drilling around the world, they have a really, really good safety record. But when it does happen, the potential for a massive disaster is much bigger than a lot of other sources of oil spills”—such as transportation.
“The question is: Are we willing to take this risk?” Holcomb asks. “Talking to people today, getting my rental car, everywhere I went everybody’s so upset that this is continuing to happen. But we’re dependent on oil, and we use it, and we know things are going to happen.” And no matter how many precautions are put in place, “It only takes once,” he notes.
Along the Louisiana shore, the birds that are most at risk include Brown Pelicans that are right in the middle of their nesting season; the Gannets and waders such as Herons and Egrets; and the Gulls and smaller birds that plunge in and out of the water in search of their next meal.
Outside of Holcomb’s area of expertise are the whales and dolphins that populate the region. And then there are sea turtles—creatures that come up for air at the surface, right where the oil is; that mistakenly eat oil blobs in the water; and whose babies could be hatching and stumbling down the sand directly into the oil-filled sea.
It’s enough to make the good-hearted people of the world want to rush to the shores to help. But Holcomb says that’s not the right thing to do.
“Everybody’s rallying to chip in, but you can’t send people out to the beaches without hazardous substance training,” he says.
For those seriously interesting in lending a hand, there’s a Volunteer Hotline set up at 1-866-448-5816.
Names logged on that hotline will be fed through a command center that will distinguish between those qualified and not qualified to help, and that will have final say on how the work is divvied up.
The best way to help immediately is through donations. “We’re a nonprofit. We live on donations,” Holcomb says. “We also take care of oil birds all the time—when there isn’t a big spill, and where nobody knows where they come from. It’s really a great way to contribute, not just because it’s financial, but because it supports the ongoing care of the birds.”
Even if you don’t have a dollar to give, there’s a way you can help right now: Holcomb is actually a finalist for Oceana‘s Ocean Hero award. And right now, for every person who pledges to protect our oceans at Oceana’s website, Oceana will receive a $1 donation. (It doesn’t cost you a thing to do it!)
You can also support the IBRRC through the purchase of something you need in your home: Dishwashing detergent. Through the Dawn Saves Wildlife program, every time someone purchases a bottle of Dawn dish soap and logs into their website, the IBRRC receives a split of a $1 donation from Proctor & Gamble.
Which made us wonder: After all these years, is scrubbing with Dawn really the most advanced method of oil-bird cleansing? “It’s the best product to date that cleans the birds,” Holcomb says. (And not just because they give his group donations!) “It almost seems silly, but it really is the right thing.”
Being scrubbed by human hands isn’t exactly something the birds enjoy. “It’s still stressful to the animal,” he notes. “Our advancement is in the way we treat the animals and provide rehabilitation care with them. That’s advanced a lot.”
In fact, that’s the reason we can all be thankful for the presence of Holcomb and his team. “Every animal is an individual animal, and they require individual care,” he says. And even in the face of what could be a massive disaster, “We take that under consideration.”
By Mark Dagostino for TONIC