While reporting few dead wildlife, officials cite fears of BP spill's hidden impact

As BP works to control the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, local wildlife struggle for survival.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; 8:38 PM

Crews looking for injured or dead wildlife in the vast Gulf of Mexico oil spill have found a few more of them -- but they fear that many animals and fish might be dying offshore and unnoticed.

In a conference call with reporters Friday morning, officials from several federal agencies listed the animals injured so far. Forty-three birds have been found dead from oil in the gulf, and 23 found "oiled" but alive. That number is up slightly from a few days ago.

Authorities have also found 186 sea turtles, most of them dead. But, in all but three of those cases, the turtles showed no external signs of oil. They have also found 18 stranded dolphins but have no proof that the oil slick is to blame in those cases, either.

In the call, officials said that many more wildlife probably have been killed by the oil, but their toll is hidden because their bodies have sunk in the open ocean, or been eaten by scavengers.

"We expect the numbers of affected wildlife to increase," said Ralph Morgenweck of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Many of the wildlife ... that die from this spill will never be recovered."

So far, this spill's impact on wildlife seems tiny in comparison to the 1989 spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska. There, scientists estimated the oil killed 250,000 seabirds, in addition to bald eagles, sea otters, killer whales and other creatures.

But now, scientists have cautioned that, because so much of the oil in the gulf is hidden deep underwater, they know very little about where it is, or where it might be harming wildlife.

"We've never really seen this kind of thing," said Roger Helm, also of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "This one's coming in a way that has a lot of us working to understand, what is going to be the longer-term impact? ... How do we get our brain around this?

The impact on wildlife on shore might increase soon, now that thick sludge has begun washing up in marshes and on beaches in remote areas of south Louisiana. The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans reported Friday that on Elmers Island, La., "Hundreds of oil-coated hermit crabs lay dead or dying along the blackened shoreline, having lost their battle to crawl out of the toxic mess."

On Thursday afternoon, marine scientist Nancy Rabalais got an up-close look at the oil when she scuba dived into waters about 10 miles off the Louisiana coast. She was going in to change out a series of meters, attached to the legs of an oil platform, that measure underwater oxygen content.

When she and her team dived in, Rabalais said, there was no oil in the area. But, after a few minutes, blobs and thick, eight-foot-long patches of it began floating in. When they arrived at the surface, the boat crew yelled at them to get out of the water quickly.

"You all gotta get out of here, right now!" Rabalais recalled him saying. "It was at the surface when we came back up."

Rabalais said the stuff was strong-smelling and sticky, and clung to the divers and their equipment.

"They say I have a glob of it in my hair," she said by cellphone, a few minutes after leaving the boat. "I've got to go out and get a bottle of Dawn ... and de-oil myself."

Rabalais said the experience had given her an appreciation for what it must be like for animals that swim in the gulf, especially animals such as turtles and dolphins that must come to its oily surface to breathe.

"I, as someone who was totally covered up and breathing my own air [from a tank], would not go back in it," she said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company