Helping wildlife come clean

Living Well | Words: Peter Hanlon | Photo: Shannon Morris | Posted on 13 March 2018

A Victorian invention makes removing oil from marine wildlife simple and quick.

Dr Peter Dann and Professor John Orbell

Like the best solutions, it’s the apparent simplicity that’s so striking. Take a penguin whose plumage has been contaminated by an oil spill. Douse the bird in a powder of oil-absorbing magnetic particles. Wave a magnetic “wand” over its feathers. And voila! Dry-cleaned penguin.

Dr Peter Dann, the Research Manager at Phillip Island Nature Parks, describes the Oil Spill Wand as “a real game-changer”. However, Peter’s collaborator, Professor John Orbell, from Victoria University’s Institute for Sustainability and Innovation, dispels the notion that the invention is straightforward. “Nothing is quite as simple as you think,” John says. “It’s taken a long, long time to develop.”

The pair showcased the Oil Spill Wand’s capabilities to global wildlife rehabilitators in California in December, demonstrating its effectiveness on furry, feathered and leathery (reptile) species. In May they will travel to the 13th Effects of Oil on Wildlife conference in Baltimore.

The chemistry that worked so well in lifting oil from roads could have a similar impact on animals.

Back in the early 1990s, John Orbell saw Peter Dann on the TV news, standing on Phillip Island’s southern shore explaining the mess all around him – a beach covered in oil, and penguins that had either been contaminated before they left the water, or were being “oiled” secondarily as they waddled up the beach. Peter recalls, “I got a call from John afterwards saying he knew of this technique that was being used on hard surfaces”.

They later discovered that the physical chemistry that worked so well in lifting oil from roads and workshop floors could have a similar impact on animals – not just penguins, but seals, turtles and other marine creatures. Commercial-grade powder, consisting of absorbent particles of around 40 microns in size, is the key ingredient.

Contaminated wildlife had hitherto been cleaned using hot water and detergent, a time-consuming process that was distressing to the birds and temporarily washed away the waterproofing qualities of their plumage. With the Oil Spill Wand, rescuers can perform a “quick clean” to remove the most volatile, toxic and corrosive components of the oil from the wildlife in minutes.

I think it’s like magic. Occasionally we do it for audiences, and people actually gasp.

Video of the process brings to mind television infomercials, with a single, oiled feather being returned to fluffy, brilliant white in a matter of seconds. The oil-laden contaminant is then simply wiped off the wand into a bag for environmentally sound disposal.

Peter says, “I think it’s like magic. Occasionally we do it for audiences, and people actually gasp.”

Their years of effort have been recognised by prestigious awards, as well as a $250,000 grant as a 2014 finalist in the Google Impact Challenge Australia.

A reduction in oil spills has resulted in a scarcity of live subjects. This has meant that until now, testing has largely been done on dead seabirds that have washed ashore, or the pelts of dead seals.

“In a sense that’s the perversity of it – a big oil spill with a lot of wildlife affected will probably be the making of this technique,” Peter says. “But none of us are really hoping for that.”