Stupid Humans: 58,000 Gallons of Fuel Oil
November 8, 2007

Last night when I went to bed, only 140 gallons of oil fuel had been dumped into the San Francisco Bay when the Cosco Busan, a South Korea-bound container ship, crashed into the west span of the Bay Bridge. This morning -- because of some sort of communications malfunction between the container ship spokespeople and the U.S. Coast Guard -- the spill has been upped to a whopping 58,000 gallons.

I headed down to Ocean Beach for a run I hadn't taken in over four weeks. As I parked, I noticed with relief how many surfers were out enjoying the sullen grey sky and pearl-bright beach, and I figured that meant the oil hadn't yet traveled far enough south to really affect Ocean Beach. I was wrong. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I could smell the oil fuel. I couldn't see it yet, but it was there, and it was choking. I headed up the beach and chilled out with my usual tunes.

Photo by Jen Maiser

Because I used to collect beach glass as a kid -- preferring its jeweled look to my mother's agates -- I have this habit of looking down at the crunchwet sand as I run. At times, it has the effect of hooking one of my feet over the other, sending me flailing with thunderous grace. At other times, I came home with smooth-cool stones and perfect shells that look as though they've been shanked from ivory. Today I saw fat, round, shiny black drops. Thinking it could have been stones or remnants of a jellyfish, I bent down to touch a droplet and came away with a finger gummed over with smelly, poisonous crap.

The oil spill had definitely made it to my Ocean Beach.

Soon enough, I caught sight of a bird foundering in the surf. It was black with a bright orange bill and a white spot on the back of its head. Not being a bird watcher, all I could determine was that it looked more like a duck than a gull, it was alone and it was clearly in distress, as it vainly tried to use its oil-soaked wings to flap out of the shallow surf. I flicked open my cell phone and punched up the SFist-provided number to report birds covered in oil (1-877-823-6926). I cited my Ocean Beach location near Taraval and sketched out my amateur details of the bird. The dispatch told me they had been getting hundreds of calls about Ocean Beach. About three minutes later, the Beach Patrol pulled up and parked near my sad friend. I backed up and away from the bird as one of the guys flashed me a quick sunburned smile before he waded into the surf with a pale purple towel clutched in latex-gloved hands. Being careful not to look at the bird, he started skirting the shoreline, taking cautious sideways steps to bring him closer to the injured animal but slyly positioning himself as a barrier to the open water. The bird started flapping desperately, so the beach patrol threw the towel over him, hoping to trap him. Sadly, my bird flapped out from under the protective towel. The beach patrol made a valiant and impressive flying leap at the bird, landing a bare belly full of scraping sand and icy water, but losing my bird. My bird, mistaking salvation for an attack, flooded himself under the water and paddle-flapped out of reach.

Up the beach a bit, the Beach Patrol successfully collected two affected birds and took off for a rescue center while I searched vainly for my bird. Not finding him, I headed for home, my eye constantly scanning the dark water. I soon caught sight of another foundering bird and stood watch, seeing some ATVs moving up the beach in my direction. Then, before my horrified eyes, a huge seagull stamped over to the oiled bird and started ramming him furiously with his deadly bill. I know Mother Nature isn't kind, but I am, so I took off into the water, wildly windmilling my hands above my head and screaming desperately to scare off the gull. After the gull flew off and left my second charge alone, I choked back a half-sob, half-laugh as I remembered what Jen had affectionately said to me just five minutes earlier, "You're such a champion for the little guy."

I can't be anything else. Not when we humans screw up so much for them.

The ATVs from the Department of Fish and Game closed in and I pointed out my bird. They thanked me and headed off with nets as I kept moving toward home.

Currently, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network doesn't seem to need any civilian volunteers to help with the clean up, but as soon as they raise the alarm, I'll be out there giving back to the beach that has given me so many hours of refreshed happiness and awed peace.

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