Sunday, November 29 , 2015, 9:44 am | Fair 60º

Captain’s Log: Smallest Creatures Suffer Biggest Effects of Oil Spill

Damage is done to myriad species that spend their early lives at the surface of the sea.

By Capt. David Bacon, Noozhawk Columnist |

Article Image
Platform A, rear left, is where last weekend’s oil spill originated. The greatest devastation from a spill is to minute critters at the surface of the sea. (Capt. David Bacon / Noozhawk photo)

Oil spills are hard on some critters and not so much on others. The worst impact on critters is difficult to quantify. Some effects are obvious.

After a spill, the media usually dish up pictures of oil-slimed seabirds because that’s the easiest and most compelling image for a reporter to capture. Surprisingly, many of our marine mammals are not greatly affected by the oil. Fish do fine during a spill. The greatest damage is to myriad species of very young critters that spend their early lives — when they are almost too small to see — at the surface of the sea.

Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)
Many of the oil-soaked birds die, yet some we can clean up and release. Critter lovers like me shed tears of sorrow over the dying birds and tears of joy over the ones we save. Cormorants seem to be particularly susceptible, because — while being fearless masters of what they do best (forage underwater with frequent surfacing for air) — they are not one of the more generally intelligent birds. When you hold a cormorant in your hands and look deeply into its fierce blue eyes, you begin to understand the nature of the savage heart beating in the bird’s breast and its singular focus on its niche in the kill-to-eat food chain we are a part of in one way or another.

Skydiving birds can easily spot and avoid surface oil, unless the temptation is too great because of schools of small finfish driven to the surface by larger predators below. That’s when pelicans, gulls and terns pick up an oil coating.

I’ve watched in amazement on many occasions while fishing in the ever-present and naturally-occurring oil patch near Coal Oil Point as marine mammals swim through the yuck and are not apparently bothered by it. I’ve tracked whales and dolphins in the area as they simply ignored the floating oily crud and swam right through it all day long. It didn’t seem to stick to them permanently.

My greatest surprise was several years ago when a large sea turtle — with a head the size of a football and a shell at least 3 feet in diameter — swam right through the stuff for a hundred yards as it neared my charter boat. It finally spotted the boat and turned away just a few yards off our port beam. Looking at the critter carefully, I couldn’t detect a substantial amount of oil stuck to its skin or shell. The magnificent critter swam off strongly, seemingly unaffected by the oil. 

Neither are fish bothered much by the oil. A surface sheen only directly affects fish that surface. Natural oil seeps such as near Coal Oil Point float to the surface as globules, which are easy for fish to avoid before spreading to form a sheen on the surface.

I’ve come to believe that the greatest devastation from an oil spill (unless it drifts ashore (which brings a whole new set of problems) is to minute critters at the surface. From my studies I’ve come to realize that the top half-inch of the surface of the sea is perhaps the most alive place on Earth. It serves as a vast nursery for so many species that spend the early portion of their lives floating with currents at the surface of the sea and feeding on yet smaller critters.

How can we possibly measure this devastation from an oil spill that covers and smothers miles of sea surface? I don’t know, but I want answers.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

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