Jan 17, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

How SeaWorld Is Responding to the Santa Barbara Oil Spill And What They're Doing to Help

May 26, 2015 03:06 PM EDT

Upon request of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network's (OWCN) Unified Command, SeaWorld deployed two members of the Animal Rescue Team early Sunday morning to assist with efforts at the Refugio Beach oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast. At 3:45am today SeaWorld deployed a third member of the Animal Rescue Team. All three have specialized training through the OWCN and experience with oiled wildlife.

Meanwhile oiled animals are being cared for back at SeaWorld in the Oiled Wildlife Care Center (OWCC). Thus far multiple California sea lions and an elephant seal have reached SeaWorld's care facility. Unfortunately one sea lion died in care on Saturday. The surviving animals remain in guarded condition.

A press release from SeaWorld San Diego announced: "It is with great sadness that we report the death of the oiled sea lion affected by the Refugio Beach oil spill that was brought to SeaWorld San Diego for rehabilitative care on May 21."

Initially the team had some optimism for the animal's recovery. It had a high fever when it arrived at the OWCC which was then successfully reduced. However, it was dehydrated, thin, and had more than 50 percent of its body covered in oil. Despite administration of antibiotics, sub-cutaneous fluids, and a nutrient-rich formula, the sea lion did not survive:

"The animal arrived in critical condition. The Rescue Team administered hydration to the male sea lion, took a blood sample and had washed the oil off. Unfortunately, it passed away in the early hours of this morning (Saturday, May 23). A necropsy will be performed to try to determine the cause of death."

The Santa Barbara spill began on Tuesday. The onshore pipeline belonging to oil company Plains All American of Texas burst, gushing around 105,000 gallons of crude oil into a storm drain. From there the oil devastated an undeveloped stretch of coastline near Santa Barbara-and about 20 percent of it invaded open water.

Since that time, rescue teams have been desperately working to save oiled sea life, but it's an uphill battle. Many died before they could be reached, washing ashore dead.

By Friday the oil slick covered 8.7 miles of coastline and 9.5 square miles of ocean, between Refugio State Beach and Arroyo Hondo Beach. Gizmodo reports that workers have been able to skim approximately ten thousand gallons of oily water off the surface of the ocean, and remove about 800 cubic yards of contaminated soil and 91 cubic yards of oily solids from the beach.

The region around Santa Barbara and its offshore islands is critical to local ecological diversity. Known as the Santa Barbara Channel, the area provides a migratory route for humpback and blue whales, and many birds. The channel is also home to many different species including dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and seals. The nearby under water kelp forests also support many species of fish and benthic invertebrates.

Sadly, it's not just the immediate aftermath of oiled animals dying from toxic exposure that should concern us; oil spills like this can have a devastating longterm effect. Tides gradually disperse the oil far and wide. Once they do, oil can disrupt communities of microorganisms which form the basis of marine food chains. As oil hangs in the water, there is less light for species like coral and kelp that rely upon photosynthesis. And the coming warm weather will probably cause oil to sink all the way to the sea floor, becoming a toxic permanent fixture in reefs and layers of sediment.

SeaWorld has a team of about 100 trained personnel who are available to assist with oil spills like this one. The team will remain standing by and respond as needed.

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