CBC Digital Archives

Oil found on beaches of Magdalen Islands

Environmentalists dubbed it a ticking time bomb, and nobody knew when — or if — the Irving Whale oil barge would release its dangerous cargo. Toxic discoveries, legal delays and spiralling costs would all ensue before the Irving Whale saw the light of day — 26 years after sinking off Prince Edward Island in 1970.

It was the Canadian Wildlife Services that first discovered dead birds on the beaches of the Magdalen Islands -- and then the oil began washing up. No one is sure where the thick black clumps of Bunker C oil are coming from. Jill Birtwhistle, reporting on the cleanup efforts, says locals suspect a passing oil tanker or the Irving Whale, which had sunk not far from the islands 11 years before.
• The Magdalen Islands, or Îles-de-la-Madeleine, are a group of 12 islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 105 kilometres northeast of Prince Edward Island and 215 kilometres southeast of the tip of the Gaspé peninsula. The islands are part of the province of Quebec, and the main industries are fishing and tourism, both of which would be adversely affected by an oil spill.

• Oil spills can have serious effects on all types of sea life, but birds are often the hardest hit. Oil destroys the structure of a bird's feathers, which normally weave together to create a waterproof insulating layer. Without that protection, water penetrates through to the bird's skin, and the bird must use up its stores of fat to stay warm; it then must work harder to find food to replenish that fat.

• Birds also ingest the oil directly while preening (nibbling and rubbing their feathers), which normally keeps the feathers clean and waterproof. Toxic compounds in the oil damage the bird's lungs, liver, kidneys and intestines. However, birds affected by oil spills usually die of hypothermia, which happens when their body temperature goes too low.

• Environment Canada estimates that about 5,000 birds, mostly eiders, died as a result of the Irving Whale — not from its sinking in September 1970, but from a spill about six months earlier when a hatch came loose. Eiders are sea ducks which spend most of their time near land, and the slick had drifted across an eider feeding area.

• When an oil spill happens, volunteers often lend their time to clean affected birds and other sea life. The process is neither quick nor easy; birds which are sick enough to be caught are often very near death and must first be treated for depleted fat reserves and internal poisoning. Once these problems are treated, the bird's feathers are washed, a labour-intensive process that can take several days to complete.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Dec. 4, 1981
Guest(s): Eric Leouzon
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Jill Birtwhistle
Duration: 1:42

Last updated: June 21, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

David Suzuki: Scientist, Activist, Broadcaste...

For over three decades, David Suzuki has been Canada's foremost environmental conscience. From...

Acid Rain: Pollution and Politics

When fish started turning belly up in lakes and streams, North America's eyes were suddenly op...

Troubled Waters: Pollution in the Great Lakes

Bacteria-laden beaches, lakes choked with algae and fish contaminated by industrial waste: the...

1987: Ozone agreement reached in Montreal

After two nights of intense negotiation in Montreal, delegates reach an agreement to save our ...

The Sinking and Raising of the Irving Whale

Environmentalists dubbed it a ticking time bomb, and nobody knew when -- or if -- the Irving W...

1986: CEO polluter gets jail time

A millionaire CEO in Toronto is sentenced to one year in prison for polluting city sewers.