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Troubled by oiled waters

It was touch and go for Nantucket last week, but the west wind held, nudging the Argo Merchant's oil spill out to sea, where birds may be dying by the thousands

There is something surreal about Nantucket in winter, especially this winter. In Nantucket town, all ancient cobblestone and brick, a pianist plays Clair de Lune during dinner at the Jared Coffin House. Neither he nor the music seems to belong, so far away in a dreary sea. Candlelight flickers around him, reflected in fine old mirrors, and the voices of the diners are hushed, but they speak of an ugly thing, the wreck of the 641-foot Liberian tanker Argo Merchant. Its 7.6 million gallons of No. 6 oil are streaming out to sea, for now, at least, but it is Nantucket's sea, and that does not seem real.

The Argo Merchant ran aground in a storm on Dec. 15, 27 miles southeast of Nantucket, and the mishap seemed to set a pattern for what was left of 1976, as Liberian oil tankers all but laid siege to the western Atlantic. On Dec. 24 more than 7.000 gallons from the Oswego Peace seeped into Connecticut's Thames. Three days later the tanker Olympic Games spilled 134,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River at Marcus Hook, Pa. Then on the 29th the tanker Daphne went aground off Puerto Rico, with 14 million gallons aboard, unspilled but menacing. But the greatest outrage is the Argo Merchant's—the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Conservationists are fuming, and on the Delaware and Thames and off Nantucket, birds are dying.

It was not just how much oil; it was also where it spilled. Nantucket had always seemed inviolate. Some 120 miles to the northeast is one of the world's most productive commercial fishing grounds, Georges Bank, with stores of cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, lobster and sea scallops. Some scientists are predicting doom for Georges if the oil gets there and sinks. Some say it already has. But there is agreement as to the devastation of the area's bird life, especially the diving birds—the loons, the auks and the murres.

Dozens of scientists have arrived in Nantucket to study oil-soaked birds, which are coming ashore sick and dying, and to prepare for the oil slick, if it should follow. The man coordinating the scientific effort is Dr. Wesley Tiffney, an ecologist, who says, "Nantucket is the most unpolluted ecosystem on the New England coast. That is why a lot of people are up here and willing to work very hard."

The longer the slick stays at sea and the more it spreads out, the faster it will break up and dissipate. But the unseasonable west winds that have been nudging it southeast for the past two weeks will certainly not blow forever. A typical New England winter nor'easter could come at any time, and the island built by whale oil could be undone by a very different kind.

If the oil from the Argo Merchant reaches the shores of Nantucket it will cause a disaster. There are two means of livelihood on the island, a $1 million bay scallop industry, and tourism; summer visitors who stay from one to seven days are worth $10 to $15 million to the island's economy, and most come for the beaches and the fishing. The scallops might not survive a blanket of oil, and the tourists might just stay away. And no one knows how Nantucket's famed bluefish and striped bass runs would be affected.

The Argo Merchant's oil has been variously described as having the consistency of chocolate pudding, Vaseline and Jell-O. In any case, it is the kind that squishes between your toes and sticks. Three pollution-control firms have been retained by the Coast Guard, and they are standing by to boom off coastal areas. But they cannot protect all the miles of shore at the same time, or any shore in the high winter surf that is the rule on much of the island.

On Nantucket, though, life goes on as always. It is hard to fear something you cannot see. To find out where the slick is on any given day, a Nantucketer must buy an off-island newspaper or call the Coast Guard at Otis Air Force Base. 35 miles away on Cape Cod. On Jan. 2 the slick was 27 miles off the island covering an area 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. A Coast Guard plane goes out each day to locate the slick—and it usually takes most of the day to do so—and to plot its expanding perimeter. Guard spokesmen claim that the slick poses no threat to either Nantucket or Georges Bank, but the Guard took a lot of flak for failing to prevent the spill, and there are those who fear its optimism is mere whistling in the dark. Still, for now, the only tangible reminder of what waits offshore is oil-soaked birds.

To capture them, and to save some, five Nantucket sportsmen have volunteered to patrol the island's shorelines in four-wheel-drive vehicles—the 80 miles of sound and ocean beach and six great ponds. They have plenty of assistants—some days 60 or more—and the assistants have been warned to leave the birds alone. One young girl was badly bitten on the nose by a gull, and too many exhausted birds are being chased back into a rough surf to die. But rescuing birds is a crusade on Nantucket. On Christmas Day, Bob Marks, one of the five coordinators, had 36 calls from people who had spotted oiled birds. One caller said he had been waiting 4½ hours for Marks to make his patrol. "Don't you want to pick it up?" he yelled. "It's Christmas," Marks said. "Well, the birds don't have Christmas," replied St. Francis of Nantucket.

They didn't. Not this year, at least. As the slick spread, their hazards grew; the birds are attracted to it. For one thing, oil calms the seas and provides a place to rest. For another, diving, fish-eating birds, like loons, auks, and murres, seem to associate slicks with feeding predators and scraps offish. The various species of sea gulls have suffered the least, because they do not dive. But many diving birds have become completely coated with oil, which creates a variety of problems. Oil destroys the insulating capacity of their feathers, and the hollow cores, normally warm, become cold. Many birds contract pneumonia and freeze to death. Others spend so much time preening—trying to clean themselves—that they are too exhausted to feed, and starve to death; or they are poisoned when they swallow the toxic oil.

The rescue efforts began on Dec. 23. eight days after the Argo Merchant ran aground, and by Jan. 2, 88 dead birds had been found and 55 live ones captured. Few were ducks, because they are rarely found far at sea, and there has been little effort made to catch the numerous gulls. They are also relatively hard to catch. Efforts have been concentrated on the loons, because they are almost helpless on land, and the murres and auks, which are much less numerous than gulls.

Most of the birds have been found by Marks, a federal game warden who manages 1,540 acres of Nantucket moor, dunes and beach. His patrol area includes Nantucket's southeast shore, the corner of the island closest to the slick. One day last week he left his home at 8 a.m. in a cold drizzle and drove east through the moors, a solemn umber now, past lone, distant houses—typical Nantucket winter scenery. He stopped in the tiny ocean-side village of Siasconset, called Sconset, where roses cover all in June and where the words quaint and picturesque most certainly were coined. Marks pointed out to sea and said, "Argo Merchant, 27 miles." Once again it did not seem real.

On the beach Marks first stopped 50 feet from a common murre, which was picking oil from its wings. "That's what'll mess him up," he said. The murre looked like a small penguin, about a foot high, white chest and black back, its body vertical; if any bird ever wore a facial expression, this one did. It was one of bewilderment. Marks swiped at it with his long-handled fishing net, but the murre escaped to the water.

It was a bad day for gathering oiled auks and murres. But that any were seen tells the scientists on Nantucket a great deal. It is so rare for them to come ashore that Tiffney surmises that tens of thousands may have died in the slick. "That's the reason why we spend so much time." he says. "It may be a drop in the bucket, but it's all we can do."

Marks picked up a dead gull and brought it to a hangar at the Nantucket Airport, where all the island's bird casualties are weighed and identified. The dead ones are flown to a laboratory on Cape Cod, the live ones packed in ventilated boxes for the daily flight to the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, 12 miles west on Martha's Vineyard; there are no facilities on Nantucket for nursing oiled seabirds.

On the Vineyard a detergent called Poly-Complex A-11 is used to remove the oil. It was developed to wash out the bilges of ships, so it is not surprising that only 25 of the 35 birds treated lived through the cleansing process. It is estimated that 75% to 80% of those will survive. Some will have to remain in captivity for up to a year, through a complete molting cycle, because A-11 removes the natural oils from the birds' feathers, making them incapable of flight.

By that time the cost per bird, in volunteer man-hours, in materials, and in airplane time, will be enormous. But the knowledge gained will be invaluable. Sanctuary director Augustus Ben David II says, "I think society owes at least this much to the birds. We inflict the damage, don't we?"

Back on Nantucket, Tiffney's team of scientists has prepared for the worst, trying to gain a greater understanding of Nantucket's ecology without oil. He says, "Pollution of any kind throws a natural ecosystem off-center, as if you took a sledgehammer to a clock. Given a disaster of this kind, we try to understand how the clock works before the hammer hits. That will help us to predict how long it will take for it to keep good time again. Of course, all our efforts could be a waste of time, and we hope they will be."

On Nantucket last week, on the brick sidewalks and under the ancient elms, and in the fairy-tale lanes of Siasconset, it was assumed they would be. How could they not?


The Argo Merchant's bridge was awash on Nantucket shoals before Coast Guard guns sank the hulk.


Warden Bob Marks netted this oil-coated loon.