World attention focused Friday on the attempt to rescue birds and animals from the oil spilled in Prince William Sound. Cameras in Valdez focused on the few animals saved fewer than 20 birds and four sea otters by evening Friday. The birds on the evening news were expensive symbols for Exxon, costing more than $1,000 apiece to rescue.
But on the water, the rescue efforts getting all the attention stumbled along with the air of a Sunday outing. In this bay at the north end of Knight Island, a diverse and committed group of people tried to learn to perform a futile task.
Jim Merritt is learning a new skill. He's used to driving his 31foot jet boat in the surf of eastern Prince William Sound to catch salmon. Now he is learning to chase ducks.
Merritt's boat caught six birds. Thursday and the first half of Friday, the fourboat flotilla of which it was a member caught 10, one of which died soon after.
About twice as many were found dead, and many times that number were found oiled but could not be captured. Workers elsewhere in the Sound caught about half a dozen birds, and a helicopter pilot grabbed two.
The wake behind Merritt's boat was black in some spots. The rocky shores of the bay were painted black with oil. The smell of oil off the water was strong enough to make some bird workers feel dizzy and ill.
Big snow flakes fell and, for a moment, stuck unmelted on the oily surface.
Merritt, who is young, affable, and able to maneuver his boat like a forklift, had his doubts about the effort the group was putting into catching the birds and the danger it posed to the aluminum boat he built a year ago, and is still struggling to pay for. He said the $2,000aday plus fuel costs he is being paid by Exxon does not compensate for the wear and tear.
A pair of cormorants flew out of a crack on the shore. Merritt nosed the boat close and Terry McCambly jumped off on the steep, oilcoated rock. Tim Warrick balanced high on the boat's gunwale to poke a dip net into the hole. McCambly clung to the cliff hoping to catch a bird on its way out the other side of the cave. A rock overhang threatened to smash the windows and headlights of Merritt's boat.
No bird came out. After two hours of trying such efforts chasing birds through the water only to see them dive, then watching their bubbles the catchers had only a plastic bag full of alreadydead murres and ducks.
An eagle hung in the misty air around the steep, forested shore. Nicolette Heaphy the only one of he Berkeley, Calif., International Bird Rescue Research Center's three staff members on board, watched the eagle through foggy glasses.
"Anything that's in bad enough shape for us to get, the eagles have probably got already," she said.
"They'll have to have some Rolaids afterward," said Merritt.
But McCambly was not downhearted. He had been planning since the night before, preparing a thrownet and putting an extension on a sport fishing dip net. Whenever the crew spotted a bird, he was ready to bound off on the shore.
On shore the oil mixed with algae, and men in rubber boots and rain gear were at its mercy, sliding into tide pools and balancing precariously over the icy, oily water.
But McCambly alone seemed to have a special talent for the work a tenacity and balance that allowed him, with the longhandled net, to sneak up on nearly catatonic ducks and nab them. Even he couldn't catch birds that had much life left in them.
Unlike the Californians and kayakers on board, who eat avocado, cucumber and bean sprout sandwiches, McCambly is a gritty 30yearold fishermen of four continents with an open enthusiasm for the most graphic of pornographic magazines.
He owns three fishing boats. "I got a really good deal on my boats, I spent most of my money on drugs," he said. "I went through 36 grand in six weeks. I spent half my money on women, half my money on drugs. Not any more though. Now I spend all my money on women."
But it doesn't take an idealist to want to rescue the birds. McCambly thinks it is worth Exxon's money, although he says workers like himself should be paid more than the $150 a day plus expenses they have been receiving.
"Birds have no fault in this," McCambly said, "and Exxon, if it costs them $1,000 a bird, they ought to pay it. If it costs them $100,000 a fish, they should pay it. One of their barrels of oil can kill 1 million salmon, and a salmon is worth more than a barrel of oil."
So far, it probably has cost Exxon at least $1,000 for each of the birds, not members of endangered species, which have been saved.
The fleet of bird catchers numbers four boats being leased for $2,000 a day each or more. The skipper of the largest boat said his contract with Exxon forbade him to talk to reporters. There were seven untrained workers and a group of three experts. They sent 11 birds and one otter to a bird hospital in Valdez in a helicopter that rented for $1,650 an hour. The trip took two hours.
In publicity alone the birds may have been worth their cost to Exxon, because they showed that something was being done. Photographers, mostly shorebound, literally fought to get a look at them.
Thursday evening a pair of photographers got into a tussle trying to take pictures of one of three birds that had been rescued, among a mob that was trying to get a shot. A British photographer kicked a Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner photographer, who fell and almost crushed the bird when he landed on top of Jessica Porter, who was holding it. Porter said she stepped between the photographers to stop a fight.
Rescuers in Herring Bay were unaware of the chaos on shore.
Cordova bookstore owner Kelley Weaverling planned to head back to Cordova and get more help.
"My feeling is that we're going to have to get lots more boats," said Jay Holcomb, codirector of the bird center, Exxon's consultants. "We're going to have to call in and say get us 40 boats with four people on each."
Weaverling has organized the entire expedition. "I can take one of the seiners, go to Cordova, gather a fleet, and come back with them," he told Holcomb.
Holcomb acknowledged that the effort receives the expensive support because it gives Exxon good publicity. Workers were confident a helicopter would come and get the animals, despite a low overcast sky, because Exxon would want to show it off to reporters.
Yet the workers seem entirely sincere in their efforts. They love the Sound and want to try to save it, even if their efforts are insignificant compared to the enormity of the disaster.
Weaverling spends four months of each summer kayaking on the Sound. He said Friday morning that he hadn't had time to react to what he had seen since he got out on the oily water Thursday.
Asked what he thought, he started to cry.
"When I woke up we were here in Herring Bay and it was real thick," he said. "It's like you've come home and everything you own is totally defiled. There's st everywhere, there's graffiti on the wall, there's vomit and urine everywhere, all your favorite things are smashed. It's beyond irresponsible. It's criminal."
And then he set back to work.
Elwin Johnston, an Anchorage paralegal, caught a sea otter.
Johnston and two others were in a skiff when they saw four otters. Three were in the oily water and escaped, but one was on the snow above the shore, rolling in a patch of snow and trying to clean the mucouslike oil from his fur.
Cannery worker Phil King circled around into the woods while Johnston stood at the shore with a net. When the otter fled King, Johnston caught it.
"I got him with a long net, just like a good center fielder," Johnston effused, as the otter, by then named Oscar, scarfed down herring.
Another otter was caught by cleanup workers, who put it in a duffle bag. One that could not move was caught by a helicopter that flew in specially.
Heaphy cooed to the birds as they were caught, wrapped in pieces of bed sheet, and placed in boxes. She talked to them when she took them out of the boxes to push a tube catheter for humans down their throats, and injected a cherryflavored nutrient solution made for human babies directly into their stomaches.
But for all her gentleness, Heaphy knew that the group is not saving Prince William Sound. Contrary to prevailing opinion in Valdez, away from the action, the rescuers knew that what they were doing was a gesture made because they have kind hearts.
It's different from other spills, such as one Heaphy worked on in California in 1986.
"People would just walk the beaches and there were hundreds of birds that you would just go up and grab," she said. "People were bringing in 20, 30 birds each, and the Coast Guard was bringing hundreds thousands."
Not so here.
"Life is unfair," Heaphy said. "We're just getting the lucky ones. It's a very special set of circumstances that lets a bird be sick enough that we can catch it, but not dead."
By Friday afternoon, about two miles of the shore of Herring Bay had been thoroughly searched.
Only a few thousand left to go.