Oil-Slicked Penguins Wash Ashore Dead in Argentina

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He said the impact of the mystery oil spill "could be huge" depending on how hard it affects the breeding population.

"If it impacts the adults and kills them, then it's a stronger impact than if it [just] kills the younger ones," he said.

Holcomb says his colleagues in Santa Cruz province, where the reserve sits on the Straits of Magellan, report 130 live birds in care and more than 300 on the shore, which still need to be captured and cleaned.

The good news, according to Holcomb, is that oiled-penguin rehabilitation has proven to be 95 percent effective.

"Penguins have that advantage to them, if you get them in time," he said.

Rescue workers first clean oil off the birds with warm water and mild soap. They then begin to feed them and get them ready for release back into the wild.

But Boersma says that mitigation is expensive and not as effective as prevention.

"The public, government, and [nonprofits] need to do all we can to prevent illegal discharge of oil," she said.

Further north, chronically oiled waters send large numbers of slick penguins to the shores of South America's eastern coast every year.

In recent weeks hundreds of these birds have shown up on beaches in Uruguay and Brazil, Holcomb said.

"This is a problem in itself," he added.

The more northerly penguins are migrants that head north as winter takes hold in the Southern Hemisphere. Boersma says the migrants come into contact with oil that has presumably been illegally discharged from ships.

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