The first victims are seabirds, graceful creatures that alight upon the ocean’s surface. They’ve been landing on the oil slick that seeped up a pipeline that ruptured Saturday off the coast of Southern California. The birds dive through its deadly sheen.

Larger mammals such as dolphins and whales can swim away in the short term and search for new habitats. But smaller sea creatures, including shovelnose guitarfish, bat rays and horn sharks, live in Southern California’s estuaries and lagoons, swim just off its coastal beaches and feed along the now-tainted shoreline off Orange County.

Next in line are the tiny sand crabs that tickle your toes in the swash zone, where waves push up onto the sloping beachfront leaving lines of foam and clumps of oil. They’re the base of the sandy beach food chain. They don’t stand a chance if an oil spill — such as Saturday’s spill of nearly 130,000 gallons into the Catalina Channel — reaches them.

The potential for damage doesn’t end there, and major questions loom: What can be cleaned? How can we clean it? How long will the spill’s effects last?

“There’s a real urgency in rescuing the wildlife affected right now, and experts have great strategies for cleaning wildlife,” said Christine Whitcraft, a professor of biological sciences at California State University. “But I do worry about the long-term impact on oiled soil and oiled plants if it makes it to the marsh plain.”

Places such as the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, a 25-acre restored wetlands where it’s possible to see up to 80 bird species. On Sunday, the oil had arrived.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has strategies for protecting sensitive sites during disasters such as the weekend’s spill.

“One of the first things we did with this response is we had our scientists oversee the deployment of booms to this area to protect them,” agency spokesman Eric Laughlin said. “That was our main priority. Unfortunately, we have seen a light sheen in the Talbert Marsh, but we’re doing everything we can to protect those sites.”

Wildlife officials do not yet have an estimate of how many birds, fish, marine mammals and other creatures have died in the spill. But as of Monday at noon, only four injured birds had been collected by the Fish and Wildlife Department.

Wildlife rescuers attempt to clean oiled birds. Doing so is difficult, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The network has a 50 to 75 percent success rate in returning oiled animals back to a clean environment.

Ziccardi called the number of rescued birds so far “surprisingly low.” It’s possible migratory patterns aligned with the spill and the region’s wildlife caught a lucky break. But he wasn’t totally optimistic. “There are going to be more animals out there that are affected by this incident than the number of animals we can actually collect.”

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