Oil spilled from a cargo ship that crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Wednesday morning continues to have a devastating impact on wildlife and beaches.
This morning, Nov. 9, two days after the spill, I went down to Ocean Beach near my home in San Francisco to see the effects for myself. It was awful.
It wasn’t as bad as the images you might have seen of the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, with waves that seemed composed of more oil than water basting the shore with a sickly sheen. And other nearby beaches are probably in much worse condition than Ocean Beach. But it was bad enough. Small clumps of thick, congealed oil were everywhere, and the smell of petroleum permeated the air.
I entered the beach from Vicente Street at about 7:45 a.m., and I immediately found a dead bird, a diving bird called a murre, at the water’s edge, next to the old storm-drain tubes. It appeared to have been dead for only a short time, but it didn’t have much oil on it and dead birds commonly wash up on Ocean Beach, so it’s impossible for me to say whether the murre died from the effects of the spill or from some other cause. And as one bird-watcher I talked to on the beach pointed out, normal patterns of water temperature, plankton bloom and animal migration have been so messed up in the past few years that birds have been dying of starvation in alarming numbers.
But further south on Ocean Beach I found birds that, while still alive, were covered in oil and obviously in distress. The first oiled birds I found were two eared grebes huddled in the sand just below the bluff near where Sloat Boulevard intersects the Great Highway. Eared grebes are small enough that you could almost hold one in one hand, but they’re plucky little predators that dive below the waves to feed on fish and other small animals. These two were doing their best to clean their feathers, but they were completely coated in oil and certainly looked like they were going to die soon — perhaps directly from being poisoned by ingesting the oil, but more likely from hypothermia as the oil robbed their feathers of their insulating properties.
Local birder Andy Kleinhesselink was observing the birds when I walked up (and confirmed their identification for me). Kleinhesselink said he had walked Ocean Beach that morning from Lawton Street south to Sloat Boulevard, about a dozen blocks, and had seen several snowy plovers (a federally protected species) along the way, some of them partially covered in oil. I later saw what I think were a few plovers. None of the ones I saw appeared to have any oil, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of them affected by it, as they spend their days running up and down the beach, plucking mollusks and crustaceans from the sand as the waves recede. That’s the same part of the beach where the clumps of oil are collecting.
I took some pictures and video of the grebes and called in their location to the oiled-wildlife hotline (877.823.6926), but I had no sooner called in the birds’ location than the cavalry arrived: two employees of the California Department of Fish and Game on four-wheeled ATVs. They captured the grebes in nets and boxed them up to take them to get cleaned up.
I didn’t have much time to spend on the beach, so from there I returned north. I found a scoter standing on the sand at about Wawona Street. It most likely was a surf scoter, but I wouldn’t swear to it as there are a couple of other scoters that look similar and I don’t have much practice distinguishing them from the surf scoter. This bird had black feathers so it was hard to tell if it had oil on it, but something was definitely wrong. I have seen many scoters in the surf over about 12 years of fishing salt water near San Francisco, but I have seldom seen one on the shore. I have never before seen one stand on a sandy beach. Like the eared grebe, scoters are near-shore diving birds and it’s likely they’ll be among the species hardest hit by the oil spill. The DFG guys rescued this bird, too.
Continuing north, I passed the murre carcass I had found earlier. A raven and several gulls were feeding on it.
At about Ulloa Street, I found a live murre that was partially coated in oil and appeared sick. I kept moving around to keep the murre’s attention on me, and one of the DFG guys did a great job of sneaking up behind the murre, between it and the water, to capture it.
The whole experience of seeing all that oil on a beach I know so well was pretty sickening, and there is plenty to be angry about regarding the initial emergency action after the spill. But if there’s a bright spot to any of this it’s the way some people have responded to it. First, the DFG guys seemed to be doing a good job. As a fisherman I’m used to hearing the DFG criticized, but considering that the state continually hamstrings the DFG with inadequate staffing and a woefully deficient budget, the average field employees of the department are greatly underappreciated by the public and do great work to defend the natural treasures that belong jointly to every Californian. Second, there are people like San Francisco resident Peter Pirolli, a surfer I met on the beach this morning. Pirolli told me he lives near Ocean Beach and visits daily, and when he saw the condition of the beach today he went for a garbage bag and started cleaning up. Pirolli quickly filled up the bag and had some advice for anyone thinking of doing their own personal beach cleanup: Bring a sturdy bag, there’s a lot of work to do.