Questions For The Great Penguin Rescue

QuestionsForLiving interview with Dyan deNapoli March 25, 2013 focuses on her questions that influenced her committment to the natural environment and penguins in particular. She also share some of the primary questions that lead to the success of the Great Penguin Rescue.  


QuestionsForLiving: Were there any specific questions were you asking yourself over the course of your life that led you to a profession dedicated to protecting animals and specifically penguins? If so, what were some of these questions?
Dyan deNapoli: I've had a deep love of animals for as long as I can remember, and after seeing dolphins up close at the age of 5, I became obsessed with working with them, but I had absolutely NO idea how to go about making that happen - and nobody else seemed to know either. As a result, I put this idea on the back burner until many years later, when I finally found the confidence to pursue my long–held dream.

  • What can I do to help protect animals - endangered species in particular?
  • What difference can one person make?
  • How do I pursue my dreams of working with dolphins/marine animals?
  • What training or education do I need to achieve those goals?
  • How will I feel at the end of my life if I don't at least TRY to pursue my dreams – no matter how unrealistic they may seem?

QFL: What, if any, questions have you asked over the years that have continued to fuel your commitment to protecting penguins?

deNapoli: Because 13 of the 18 penguin species are listed by the IUCN at Threatened or Endangered, my mission is to raise awareness and funding to protect them. To that end, I donate 20% of the proceeds from my book, The Great Penguin Rescue, and from every appearance to penguin rescue, research and conservation groups. As someone who worked closely with penguins daily for nine years, and having the ability to share my knowledge and experience with others, I feel bound to do everything I can to help ensure their future survival.

  • In addition to what I'm currently doing (lecturing, writing, consulting), is there MORE that I can do to help protect penguins and other animals?
  • What do these animals need most, and how can I help them receive it?
  • How can I partner with others to reach those goals?
  • Who can I reach out to to learn more, to do more, make more of a difference?
  • How can I reach an even wider audience with my conservation message? 

QFL: What are some specific questions that contributed your success in developing educational programs to teach people about penguins, and to cultivate awareness regarding the issues and dangers that threaten penguins?

deNapoli: I had no formal training as a teacher – just nine years of working closely with penguins on a daily basis and giving public presentations about them to our visitors at the New England Aquarium. When I left the NEAq and decided to create my educational company, I was a bit unsure how to create effective programs for very young children, so I spoke with pre-school teachers and observed other school performers, and made adjustments as necessary.

  • How do I most effectively teach children and adults of various age groups?
  • What techniques will work best with each demographic?
  • How do I make programs that are not only educational, but engaging and inspiring?
  • How do I impart important conservation messages, as well as a call to action without being too strident/on a soapbox?
  • What specific action steps can I give to both children and adults so they can feel empowered to make a difference? (I feel as though this is one of the most important questions to ask. You can't just tell people what the problems are, and leave it at that – you must also give them tangible solutions.)

QFL: What were the questions that you, and the other experts involved in the rescue effort, asked that contributed to the success of the "Great Penguin Rescue" which saved 95% of the birds at risk or directly impacted by the oil spill near South Africa?

deNapoli: This rescue effort was unprecedented in its size and scope. It was the largest and most successful animal rescue ever undertaken – and still stands as such today. Prior to the Treasure oil spill, the largest animal rescue in history took place in Cape Town just six years prior, during the Apollo Sea oil spill. In the Apollo Sea spill, 10,000 penguins were rescued, half of which perished (primarily due to inadequately ventilated transport boxes and trucks). They just had not been prepared for such a large-scale rescue effort. In contrast, during the Treasure oil spill, 40,000 penguins were rescued, 95% of which survived.

There were four key factors that made the latter rescue effort so successful. First, they had the experience of the former rescue under their belts, and had learned from mistakes made during that effort. Second, the local penguin rescue center, SANCCOB, immediately called for international help as soon as the ship sank. Third, in the intervening years between the two oil spills, they had designed and manufactured tens of thousands of well ventilated transport boxes. Due to this one innovation (and due to using open-air trucks as well), only a handful of penguins died in transport during the Treasure rescue. And finally, the volunteer response during the Treasure oil spill was tremendous – more than 12,500 people volunteered their time. Without so many dedicated volunteers, we absolutely could not have saved those oiled birds.

We began and ended each long day with a meeting of all the supervisors and managers. There was a small rotating crew of penguin experts and wildlife rehabilitators who flew to Cape Town in staggered shifts to train and supervise the 12,500 inexperienced volunteers who had shown up to help save the 19,000 oiled penguins. (In addition to these birds, another 20,000 clean penguins were moved from their breeding island to prevent them from getting oiled. This had never been attempted before but – out of viable options – it was tried, and was very successful.) At our debriefing meeting at the end of each day, the rescue directors asked each of us who was there in a professional capacity for our input about best husbandry practices and best training practices. They asked us what we needed to help make each stage of the rehabilitation process and the training process more efficient, and immediately put those changes into place. This ability to listen openly with an experienced ear, to be flexible yet decisive, and to act quickly definitely saved the lives of thousands of animals.

  • When we first realized that we were faced with the largest animal rescue ever attempted, we all wondered…is it humanly possible to save this many (19,000) oiled animals?
  • What and who do we need to be successful? (Experts, volunteers, resources, supplies, infrastructure, money, shelter and food for both birds and people)
  • How do we train all of these inexperienced people to properly care for the penguins?
  • What went wrong today and how do we fix it so we don't make the same mistakes tomorrow?
  • What went right today and how do we make sure everyone follows these procedures moving forward?
  • How do we protect the thousands of unoiled birds still out on the islands, and keep them from also getting oiled? 

QFL: From your experience, are there specific questions that rescue teams, and disaster response teams, should themselves ask to adequately protect wildlife in the case of a future oil spill? If so, what are some of these questions?

deNapoli: Just as some of the lessons learned during the Apollo Sea oil spill in 1994 were put into place during the Treasure oil spill in 2000, when the MV Oliva sank at the Tristan da Cunha island group in 2011, some of the lessons learned during the Treasure rescue were put into place. Specifically, as they had during the Treasure rescue, they removed many of the unoiled Rockhopper penguins from the area to prevent them from getting oiled. Sadly though, due to the incredibly remote location of these islands (and due to some political red tape), it was not possible to get the proper resources and experienced personnel there in time to save most of the oiled penguins. The Oliva oil spill highlights the importance of disaster preparedness in very remote areas that have large penguin populations.

  • Do we already have a plan or course of action in place?
  • Do we have an SOP (standard operating procedures) manual, the right people on board, the right resources available to us?
  • Do we have experts experienced in disaster/oil spill response ready to respond immediately in case of an unforeseen disaster?
  • Have we already scoped out buildings in the area that could be used as a temporary rescue center if needed?
  • Are we prepared to contain/halt the spread of the oil and prevent animals in the area from becoming oiled?
  • Are we equipped to capture and transport large numbers of animals safely and quickly?
  • Do we have the right laws in place to protect the wildlife and environment? How do we avoid any red tape that might hinder our efforts? 

QFL: What are some questions that you, and the rescue response team asked during the Great Penguin Rescue that could/ should be cross-applied to other wildlife rescue initiatives?

deNapoli: All of the questions above (from questions #4 and #5).
QFL: What are the primary questions that you, and other ocean / wildlife experts, are asking in order to promote and ensure the long-term health, safety and survival of penguins and marine life in general?

deNapoli: While humans are negatively impacting penguins and the environment in many ways, the two primary threats to penguins today (and to most sea creatures) are global warming and overfishing. These are two things that we each have the power to do something about. As stewards of this planet, I believe it is our responsibility to do everything we can to make things right and to restore the natural balance in nature.

  • What can I do to make a difference? How can I most effectively spread the conservation message?
  • What changes can we each make in our daily lives (regarding our habits and lifestyle choices) to ensure we lessen our impact on the planet?
  • What is my carbon footprint and how can I lower it? (Go to or similar websites to learn more.)
  • What can we each do to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, plastics, chemicals?
  • What can I do to continue to educate myself and others about these issues?


QFL: Independent of your work with Penguins, what questions do you believe that people could ask themselves to make our world a happier and healthier place?

deNapoli: I believe that our goal should be to figure out what it is that we are most passionate about, and then pursue that thing with all of our hearts. My personal definition of success is to wake up each day looking forward to my work because I love with I'm doing and I love who I'm doing it with. If I can inspire others to do the same along the way…even better. For me, it's not about money or prestige or power – it's about doing what I love and about making a difference. If we all lived our lives doing what we are most passionate about, I believe we would all be happier – and happier individuals make for happier communities, which in turn makes for a happier and healthier world.

  • What and who am I grateful for each day?
  • Am I doing work that is fulfilling and that I'm passionate about?
  • Am I doing work that I can be proud of and that is making a difference?
  • Is my work contributing to my community and to the world? Am I giving back in some way?
  • Does it scare me at all? If so, I should definitely do it, because when I face my fears I stretch and grow the most, and learn what I am truly made of.
  • When I get to the end of my life and look back, will I know I've followed my dreams, or will I look back in regret wondering "Could I have…" or "I wish I had.."

When I finally decided to return to school at the age of 32 to pursue my dream of working with dolphins (which I did - and loved every moment of), it was because I realized I did not want to regret never having TRIED. I remember thinking to myself, "Do I want to be on my deathbed wondering, COULD I have done it?" I knew the answer to that was a resounding, "NO". I also knew there would be many obstacles to achieving my dream of working with dolphins, but I decided that failure was simply not an option. My mantra became, "SOMEONE has to have that really cool job of working with dolphins – so it might as well be ME." And that is precisely what happened. There is something magical about making a decision to be FULLY committed to doing something. Once you do that, the universe seems to conspire to help make it happen.

This quote by William Hutchinson Murray (usually attributed to Goethe) says it best: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”



First landing in Antarctica, with Gentoo penguins in the background.


Amidst Magellanic penguins on Martillo Island in Ushuaia, Argentina.



The author with her father, Paul deNapoli at her book launch party.


Dyan deNapoli speaking at the TEDxBoston conference in 2011.


For more information regarding Dyan deNapoli and The Great Penguin Rescue, please visit:

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