A Travellerspoint blog

Entry 29A - First Week with the Penguins

sunny 0 °F

Entry # 29 A – First week with the Penguins

Monday, September 25 – A Public Holiday but my first day at the center

I was pretty excited to start and kept waking up to look at the clock. I was out the door by 7:45 and at the center at 8:00. Volunteers were already moving around and working. As it was a holiday, there were only 2 of the 10 staff and only 3 other volunteers around.

The SANCCOB – South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds center is on a lake that is only separated from the ocean by a small strip of land. Established in 1968, the centers primary concern is to rehabilitate oiled penguins and assist with the rehabilitation of any other sea bird that come to them. It appears well organized and as I climbed into my green oilskins and overly large boots, I could tell that they seemed to have sufficient equipment in working order to make the tasks much easier.

Buckets, brushes, bleach cleaner, disinfectant, ample water supply, industrial sized washers and dryers, a separate education center, kitchen, bathrooms with lockers and ICU unit were all things that I saw within the first 10 minutes of being there. Apparently, I will get my proper tour and orientation tomorrow.

There had been an oil spill recently and almost all of the birds in the center are still recovering from that. All the penguins that I will work with are South African penguins, called the jackass penguins, based on the braying sound they make. The adults are about as tall as my knee and have pink skin exposed around their beaks close to their eyes. The young look a lot like blue penguins in that they don’t have the distinctive black and white markings or the pink area.

I was asked to assist two volunteers, Marlene and Ditte, who have been with the center for some time. We were assigned to pen 2, with about 32 penguins. The first task was to catch each one, administer Darrows if needed, (not sure what this was but it is in a syringe and is injected into the birds stomach with the aid of a tube), determine if it was in the 20 minute swim group or not and then either put them over the edge into the pool or put then over the fence in the other half of the pen. I was on clipboard reading out what each numbered bird was to receive.

In order to catch the birds, the ladies would don, in addition to their oilskins and boots, neoprene sleeves that went from wrist to armpit and one neoprene glove with Velcro. The technique seems to be that you try and approach the bird from the rear and grab it with one hand by the scruff of the neck and then try and scoop it up with your other hand while avoiding their beak. Then you carry them over to a little stool with a step on it and you sit on the higher seat and put the bird between your legs and hold it with one hand and clamp the flippers down with your thighs. (I am going to have amazing legs after the hill at the baboons and thighareorbics with the penguins.)
With your gloved hand, you open the birds’ mouth. With your free hand, you take the tube attached to a 60cc syringe and send it down the gullet into the stomach. Then you put the base of the plunger against your breastbone and send the liquid into the bird. If it is a juvenile, it only receives one syringe and adults receive two.

From the clipboard, I could see that there are some of the penguins that receive either Darrows or water every even hour. There are others that only receive it one, twice or three times a day. In addition to fluids, they are fed fish (VERY LARGE SARDINES) twice daily. At each feeding, I got to record the fish count per bird. Some of the birds received medications in pill or liquid form 1-3 times a day and two were on nebulizer 3 times a day. At the end of the day, a small number of them were also to receive some type of formula. What all of this means is that some birds are handled at least 8 times within 9 hours.

After we had the group divided into swimmers and not, we began to clean the unoccupied portion of the pen. This involved removing the four large carpet pieces and the 9 plastic mats underneath. Hose down the plastic mats and take them to the mat cleaning area. Hose down the floor and make up a bucket with two packets of white stuff (bleach) and with your scrub brush with long handle, scrub the floor and walls of the pen. Rinse the pen with fresh water. Make up a bucket with a ½ scoop of pink stuff (disinfectant that looks like red Kool-Aid) and scrub with brush the walls and floor of the pen. Rinse with fresh water. Bring in 9 clean plastic mats and then cover them with 4 green carpet pieces that remind me of indoor/outdoor carpeting.

Let the herd back in from the pool. At this point, Nola, the staff vet, was evaluating the swimmers group to see who was ready to move off to another pen. She was checking to see their hydration level and if they retained the water repellent status after their swim. If they did, they moved into the pen that is closer to being released. If not, they stayed in pen 2 for more treatments and a longer stay. During this procedure, I was cleaning the other half of the pen that had not been cleaned earlier.

Then it was time to get the food ready. We went to work at three large tubs with blocks of frozen sardines floating in water. We would separate the ones off the blocks that were thawed and put them in large plastic bowls. As we had around 30 penguins, Ditte took 30 of the fish and put a vitamin down their throat. Each day the pens of penguins receive a rotating type of vitamin. In addition to getting fish ready of our pen, Marlene and I cut fish in half for others pens. There is one pen full of recovering sea gulls that received fish tails and chopped up fish, a pen of cormorants that received two platters of fish tails and the sanctuary pen (called home pen) that is full of an assortment of penguins, cormorants and gulls that will never be able to be released that receives a platter of tails and cut up fish.

Back to our pen for more penguin catching and stuffing fish down their throats. I was fish counter and recorder. After eating, everybody was released for free swim time.

I spent the swim time washing down crates, plastic crates with lids about the size of a footlocker only taller. These are the temporary housing for newly received birds, or birds that must be held separately until they are strong enough to go into a pen. With my two buckets, one with white stuff and one with pink stuff and my handy brush with a handle, off I went. Again the technique is to hose it down to try and loosen the guano, scrub, rinse and let dry. It was very difficult to get into some of the crevices so I asked for a smaller brush. 9 crates done.

At this point, everybody was having a swim and it was time for lunch. I decided to walk home to get the boots that a previous volunteer had left and were considerably smaller than the ones that I was wearing, and a pair of sock to help fill the gaps and keep my feet warmer. Just as I arrived at elements, Remo and Esther were speeding off in the car. The garage was locked, so I ate my lunch and went back with my socks and the quest for smaller boots for the afternoon. Success! Everything looks brighter when your boots are snug!

One of the volunteers I had seen this am must have been a local as she left at lunchtime. This left only four of us to do all the feeding. We were joined by Satoshi (Japanese young man) who was handling pen 10 with 40 penguins by himself. The three experienced volunteer fed fish in pen 2 first with me recording and then we moved on the pen 10.

The rest of the afternoon for me was filled with folding towels, scrubbing the green mats, cleaning pieces of equipment and watching how things are done.

Tomorrow I should receive my orientation and Ditte said that with my experience today, I will most likely be put on bird catching and feeding tomorrow.

I better get home and rest up. I am pooped!

Tuesday, September 26

I am finding the guesthouse a little noisy, mainly because the rest of the guests are on holiday and not working. May need to investigate other alternatives. Or as I become more tired, I am sure sleeping will not be an issue.

Much warmer last night and today promises to be hot. I guess I can stop looking for sweat shirts and long sleeve shirts.

Today will be my first day with all the staff around and I will receive my orientation which I am sure will help to answer all those unanswered questions that I have not even thought of yet.

As I arrived, with my borrowed boots in hand, I waited to for the 8:00 am meeting to be told where I would work today.

I am paired with Lunel, one of the bird rehabilitators in ICU. I am delayed going with Lunel as I received my orientation with Carole, (pronounced Carol – A) volunteer coordinator. Staff of about 12, but only 6 of them work fulltime with the birds, the rest are administrative or fundraising. Authorized by the government since 1968 to do their work, SANCCOB receives not government funding. They rely on grants and donations and many of their items are sponsored by large corporations or individual donors.

Once I had been oriented, I was asked to keep up with laundry all day, in addition to my tasks of removing the crates from ICU, mopping the floor, cleaning crates (much easier today and my plan of attack for cleaning the crates worked much better this time), sorting fish, cutting up fish and chicken for some of the ICU gulls, rinsing down the pool for pen 10, helping to scrub green mats, scrubbing down pen 2 and with Lunel’s help - inserting stomach tubes into the ICU birds and giving them fluids. Lunel did the hard part – catching and holding the bird, and then she coached me on how to insert the tube into the stomach, not the lungs, and then administer the fluids.

I found out what Darrows solution is – it is Gatorade for penguins.

My goal is to make sure that all the laundry is done before I go home every day. Today, I left with two loads to do. The dilemma is that the two washers take 2 hours each to run their cycles. The dryer only 45 minutes. With the backlog from the previous day, it is almost impossible to keep ahead. There will be times when I am scheduled in the office when I will be able to achieve my goal. I plan to get two loads going as I arrive each day to try and make headway. I love having a mission!

To date this year only 413 penguins have arrived at the center. 68 of them came within the last month due oil contamination from some mysterious source. This is a considerably smaller number than from previous years. There will be a beach release tomorrow, and possible as many as 30 birds from pen 10 will go out. YAAh! Many say this is the highlight of their time with the guys in tuxedos. Before they go out, the birds must meet the criteria before they are eligible – They must weigh at least 2.5 kilos, they must be able to swim for at least one hour, their blood samples must show no sign of avian malaria, babesia or any other infection. If any of these three things are not present, they remain at the center for additional care. The birds are evaluated at least twice weekly and are upgraded into the pen 10 as they approach health to be released.

There will also most likely be boat releases once a week while I am here where they load the birds on to boats and take them closer to Robben Island and release them there. Then the birds make their way independently to there nesting beach.

I received my schedule for my entire time and I have 10 entire days off! I am thrilled and now will be able to plan some side trips. Ditte and I will compare schedules tomorrow to see if there are any days that we have off together. We may take the township tour together.

I left work today feeling much more productive and happy and with the warmer weather, went out into the back yard and read on the wonderful double bed with big pillows in the garden.

Wednesday, September 27 – Beach Release

Arrived at work ready to get some laundry done before the 8am meeting and found that the night guard had done all the laundry. My goal is the same, no dirty laundry in the basket when I leave if I can help. It.

Today I was assigned to help in Pen 2 with Jennie and Julie. We all worked hard to make sure that our work was on schedule so that we were able to go on the release. One of the new jobs that I had was to clean the large gray mats in the pen. These are heavy, rubber backed, thick pile mats that were very difficult to clean. I finally was advised to take them over to the high-pressure machine (similar to the landa machine from TMAC) and blast the crap out of them. Once I had finished my mats, I figured I should also clean some of the bottom mats to keep up with the job. I had not gotten very far when they needed me back in pen 2.

Finally it was time to go to the release. The team had put 40 penguins into 25 cardboard carrying boxes and loaded them into 3 SUV’s that are called bakkies in South Africa. I went with Julie and Jennie and two others about 10 minutes away from the center, up the western coast. From where we were, you could see Robben Island in the distance.

Once all the bakkies had arrived, we picked up the boxes and put them in a semi-circle facing the water. All the boxes were opened and on the leaders count, we tipped the boxes over in the sand and allowed the penguins to climb out. All the penguins being released have a bright fuchsia spot on their chest. Quickly they all ran together into the center of the half circle and formed a little unit. They finally sighted or smelled the sea and they were off to get into the water. With camera’s clicking, they kept going faster and faster and finally they there in the water and diving through the swells that kept rolling in. The water was really rather calm and soon, they were this little pod of heads getting gradually farther and farther from shore. As we watched, we noticed that there were also two seals close to the beach to the left of the penguins. Normally a predator of penguins, these two seemed more interested in playing, so the little pod of penguins was safe for a short time. We did a few shots for the press of us in a line waving good-bye to the penguins and then it was back to the center and work.

Photos - boxes, pink spots, in the group, in the water

There weren’t that many spectators and I kept looking for Remo and Esther who had wanted to come.

As soon as we got back, Nola the vet, wanted to grade the penguins in pen 2 to see if any that could be moved to pen 10. She asked if I wanted to help carry them. So I donned neoprene sleeves and a glove on my left hand and was shown how to hold there head in my left hand and support their body with my right hand. Unfortunately, when you graduate from pen 2, it means that you are big and strong so I did not get to start with the easiest of the lot, but I managed to transport everyone without a bite or a drop.

During the afternoon feeds, I got more practice catching penguins. As predators are normally gulls that arrive from above, you crouch down and try and get them into a corner. Then, you try and get hold of one flipper that should cause them to pull away and show you the back of their head. At which point, you other hand comes from behind and try’s to find the grove in their skull to hold them steady and their beak away from you and your arms. Once you have the head, you let go of the flipper and cradle the body next to you with your hand on their belly. Their belly feathers are very soft. I didn’t mind catching most of the little blues, but the adults were on to me. Of the afternoon, I really liked and will watch carefully little blue #305 who is small and a little depressed and big guy #402 who has a considerable beak and the ability to spot me a mile away.

As I was passing Lunel earlier today, she told me the #414 who I saw in ICU yesterday did not make it through the night. He had come in so depleted that he could not even stand. She would tube or feed him yesterday and they lay him in his crate with a V made out of towels to support him.

At the end of the day, while the others were doing other things, I was to monitor the group during their 20-minute swim and I got to watch them and their interactions. Also in the group is a huge Gannet, a bird about the size of a swan with buff colored head, long beak and the most amazingly blue outlined eyes, white iris with a very tiny pupil. You don’t get to see them often as they are usually at sea, so to have a chance to watch is truly a gift. He had an injury that does not allow him to fly, but he tests his wings daily as he sails proudly around the pool with the penguins.

I am Pooped! The work is strenuous and the day is long. I am very much looking forward to two days off!

Thursday, September 28

There was coverage of the release yesterday on the news last night (that I missed) and in the papers this morning. All the papers that were in the Center were in Afrikaans, so I will look for some in English at the shops tonight. The only picture of the event was taken from the angle where you see all the penguins and the 4 bathing beauties that were standing to our left on the beach watching the event. I guess that sells papers.

Today I was back in ICU with Priscilla, the only black South African on staff. As before, ICU involved mopping and crate cleaning, but new today was also cleaning two of the 6 chest freezers. On the inside of the freezer were all these little translucent shiny disks that looked like plastic but turned out to be fish scales. I think you could say that there is probably at least one or two fish scales left in each freezer. They were all but impossible to get off the bottom, but I did what I could. Priscilla had begun to straighten the towels that are stored in ICU. The shelves she had completed were amazingly neat and the towels folded to take up as little space as possible. I spent the better part of the day trying to fold my towels like Priscilla.

Gay, a long term volunteer, is lovely and came by and asked if I wanted more experience with the birds. She was very helpful telling me why we do things to help me remember. I did a little bit more catching and tubing with fluids and formula, lots of scrubbing. I am still very cautious with the tubing because if you get it into the lungs, the bird will not make it. I am still apprehensive catching some of the birds, but it will only ease with more practice and lots of guidance from above. I don’t like that you have to hold them so tightly, but they are wild and very strong and very stressed to be with us. In pen 2, some of the birds have to be caught up to 6-8 times during our shifts to give them fluids, medications or meals. Luckily by pen 10, they are only caught twice and each time, it is for fish. Just as well as this pen have the largest and strongest birds. I haven’t had the pleasure of working in that pen yet. Maybe next week.

After work, Gay gave me a ride to the mall. I had to buy some necessities (baby powder for my work boots) and I treated myself to a new book and my first real dinner since I arrived, Salmon salad for $6. Yes, sports fans, the grocery stores in South Africa already have the Xmas decorations and wrapping paper on the shelves. Buy it now to get the best selection.
On the way home, Remo and Esther with Tequila in tow, offered me a ride to the hostel. YAAH!

Got a recommendation for a massage therapist and may treat myself to weekly massages to try and straighten out my cramped muscles. Between carrying the backpack and pulling luggage, the baboons and now scrubbing the pens for the penguins, I have one or two knots that need to be kneaded.

During lunch at the center, I came across a Time Magazine from 2005 that was talking about ending poverty and the Millennium project to reduce poverty in Africa by 2025. Got me thinking about where I might want to put my energy when I go back to work.

Menu for me for the week.

Breakfast – apple cranberry muesli, low fat yoghurt of FF milk, rooibos tea with milk, fruit

Lunch - peanut butter sandwich on toast, fruit, sometimes a hboiled egg and cheese, buckwheat biscotti and a mini size of smarties (M&M look alikes)

Dinner – Varied – instant soup, crackers and cheese or chips or pretzel, fruit leather – GUAVA!!!!, crackers with peanut butter.

I plan to achieve more nutritious dinners for next week and must plan ahead as I have to buy it and then heft it home on my back.

Trying to decide what I will do on Saturday and Sunday. Probably a bus ride into the main part of town to the waterfront, a possibly a cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain. I will also investigate the theatre options in Cape Town as there was one listed in the magazine on the plane that sounded good.

Friday, September 29

Today was my fifth day on the job and my third time in pen 2. I must admit that one of the hardest things about pen 2 is you spend alternate hours working physically hard cleaning and scrubbing, followed by a challenging hour catching birds and either stuffing fluid or fish down them. Physically challenging followed by mentally challenging at least 4 cycles during the day.

This was also Satoshi’s last day and Ditte asked if I wanted to go out with them for pizza to celebrate after work. I told her that I would like to, but it would depend on how exhausted I was at the end of the day. This was also the day when any oiled or still dirty bird would be washed. This is a process that takes up to one-hour per bird as they must be thoroughly cleaned and then totally rinsed. Most of the staff and volunteers were pulled from other duties today and they called in experienced local volunteers to help.

Before 9:00am, I had received my first bite on my upper right arm from #398 as I moved him from the nebulizer to the pool. I need to improve my technique and hold the head more firmly and closer to me to avoid this in the future. By the end of the day, I also had other nips on my right hand (the ungloved one) while I was feeding fish and tubing while I was holding the birds. I was told that I was not holding them properly because legs are so long. So many things to remember when you are feeding or tubing.

As you may remember, we were watching #305, the little blue who seemed depressed. He was the first one that I tried to feed, and I only managed to get one down him and them he threw it up within 10 minutes. (In penguins, you cannot pull things out of their mouth, they have to do it themselves. They have little barbs on their tongue and on the roof their mouth, similar those grills that you can only drive over in one direction. If you back up, your tires are toast!) They eventually took him to ICU and gave him an injection. His blood is fine, but he is not right. We will continue to watch him.

On Thursday, an arrested molter bird was brought into the center. As the penguins become an adult, they normally over eat and bulk up and then completely molt over 4 weeks. During that time they do not eat and live off their body fat. If they are in arrested molt, it means that something is not right with them as they get stuck between the two and sort of look a little moth-eaten. Such was #415 who was in pen 2.

During the day, three of staff came into pen 2 to grade the birds for the second time this week to see who was ready to move into pen 10 and therefore, closer to release. They had to catch every bird and check their hydration and feathers for water repellent status. I was recording. I watched a times how the staff would grab a bird quickly and then would struggle with them to get them into a position so that could check them. Sometimes, they would miss, but not usually. 8 birds get to move to pen 10 after we feed them this afternoon.

Late in the afternoon, I was administering Darrows to the two birds that required it and Satoshi and Laure were moving birds to pen 10. I was working with #415 (arrested molter) who had been agitated earlier today and I had to keep the tube in him as I changed syringes. As I fumbled with changing the syringes, he really got a hold of my fingers that made me shout. Satoshi was about to leave the pen, but I asked him to stay with me as I had only been doing this for today. I managed to get the second syringe in the bird and lifted him over the half wall into the other side of pen. As I put him down, he flipped on his back, gasped and struggled and could not get up. I called Satoshi and he and I watched as the bird was still on the ground. I called for Laure and she came back and lifted him up and tried to shake the fluid out of him and patted his back. At this point, I figured I had managed to get the tube into his lungs instead of his stomach and that I had done serious damage to him. Laure took him to ICU and asked us to continue moving birds. I felt absolutely awful. All the birds had been taken so Satoshi and I moved the two from the nebulizer to the pool and then I went into the ICU to return the syringe back to the lab.

I came into the room to find the necropsy in process on #415 who had just died. I began to cry. Vanessa, the manager of the rehabilitation department, said that as she opened him up that she knew something was seriously wrong with him. She said he had died of heart attack from congestive heart failure. His muscle color was very dark, his heart was very enlarged and flabby and his lungs were poorly developed and had some fluid in them. His trachea was clenched shut and as she continued to work on him, she said that the Darrows was in his stomach and not his lungs. The three staff that were at the necropsy were very kind and kept telling me that he was already compromised and would never had lasted the two months it would have taken for him to molt and then recover. I still felt awful, not just for the death (even though they said that I was not responsible), but because his final interaction with me was not gentle and calm. While my brain can grasp that any animal in the hospital is not 100% well and not all of them make it, my ego was working on my big time to make me wrong and doubt myself.

Laure asked me if I wanted to go home and I said no that I wanted to finish my shift, but that I wasn’t up for tubing the final birds with formula that day. As we were finishing up the
final jobs for pen 2, I caught Laure and said that I would like to do the tubing of the formula if she would be with me. I knew that I could not leave the center and not be back for two days without going back in and working with the birds. Laure held and let me insert and the fluids went fine. It is easy to make sure that all is right when someone else is holding. It is not so easy to verify where the tube is when you are holding and trying to insert the tube, and not get nipped or your fingers crushed.

As I look back on it, I realized that I was feeling a little pressured to come up to speed on working with the birds earlier than I felt prepared. While I felt ready to begin to learn the new tasks, I know now that I was not ready to not be supervised for a while. I didn’t realize how stressed and tired I was until the final hours of work today. I also realize how challenging it is for me to move from physical work to mentally challenging work changing between one to the other every other hour. (It reminded me of when I was doing The Women and had to keep switching hats on a daily basis because I was also trying to work at PERA as close to full time as possible).

The thing that keeps coming up for me is do I have a true perspective on today? What is my lesson? Why don’t I acknowledge how stressed I am until it gets bad? Why is it so hard for me to tell people this is not working for me? Am I seeing the situation clearly, am I being too hard or too light on myself?

Bottom line, I always aim to be a calm and balanced presence around animals and when I am not, drama is created and I get down on myself for loosing balance. Right after it happened, I checked my muscle testing to see if I could have done anything else and I was told no. I felt partially relieved but still bad and it was definitely not my preferred way to end my first week with the little guys.

I went home for a shower and then I took a cab and met Ditte, Satoshi and Chanene, the lovely woman who owns the backpackers where Ditte is staying for pizza at Castellos. Chanene has given me a reference for a massage and I may book at least once a week, if not more often. They offered me a ride home, which was very generous and saved me the taxi fare. I made it an early night and planned to sleep in, if possible.

Saturday, September 30 – DAY OFF!

Ended up being a doodle day, as I did not even get out of the hostel until noon. Spent the am on the computer.

Had some insights about yesterday from dreams and reading. 1. Take care of Jane first, if I am uncomfortable, it is my job to speak up and do what I need to make me comfortable with the situation. 2. VIBES CARD – See the Solution – Find positive alternatives and attract them to me to find the best one that fits the situation.

Thoughts for Monday at the Center

Request – all conversations in the pens in English. Helps foreign volunteers to understand what is going on and to ask more questions if we don’t understand

Thought – it may be hard for the staff to remember how physically challenging this work is to a new comer, alternating with anxiety provoking work with the birds.

Request – bird handling lessons earlier in the day instead of later in the day.

Request – staff to be on hand to offer assistance to newbie’s for at least two days before they are left on their own.

Thought – Written procedures for pen 2 and how to keep on schedule – three times in the pen and each day, jobs at the end of the day are rushed to get them all accomplished. NOT THE BEST TIME FOR A NEWBY TO BE LEFT ALONE

Sunday, October 1 – DAY OFF!

Another doodle day with lots of internetting, plane reservations for my trip to Romania, talking to Annie on the phone, blogging and just resting.

Posted by ladyjanes 04:13 Archived in South Africa Tagged postcards

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint