An ecological disaster has been unfolding this week in Israel, where an oil spill has triggered the country’s most challenging wildlife rescue missions in recent years. Tar has been washing up across 170 kilometers (105 miles) of coastline, bringing with it creatures caked in a sticky black substance that has injured and killed many wild animals. Israel Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) has warned on Facebook that the incident will likely have a lasting effect on its coastline and ecosystems both on and offshore.
They have deployed investigators to try and assess and implement a prioritized list of areas and animals requiring urgent treatment, but with tar still landing on its shoreline it’s evident that undoing the damage is going to be a mammoth undertaking. The authority has urged that while many people may be eager to help, the affected areas could be harmful to people as well as animals and that gathering during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is unwise. As such, they’ve called for volunteers to register so that they can be instructed on how to safely remove tar from beaches and which areas to target as a priority.
An interesting medicine has emerged as the favored way to help affected turtles poop out ingested tar that’s lingering in their digestive system: mayonnaise. The curious condiment choice is actually a very smart one as mayonnaise is an emulsion meaning it’s made up of water and an insoluble fluid, in this case, fat.
This combination means the popular sauce has both hydrophobic (not able to blend with water) and hydrophilic (able to blend with water) particles in its solution. The hydrophobic parts mix with the oily, hydrophobic tar and the hydrophilic parts can mix with water in the turtle’s digestive system. The satisfying result sees dense globs of tar being thinned by the mayonnaise, making it easier for them to move through the digestive system and out of the turtle all together.
The same treatment has been used in removing tar from humans, too. A 2014 study compared its efficacy against sunflower oil and diesel and found the two culinary items to be the best first step in getting the sticky stuff off (please note the study contains graphic images of severe burns).
It’s not surprising, then, that Israel's National Sea Turtle Rescue Center has been using this white gold to treat at least 27 endangered turtles that have been affected by (but survived!) the polluted waters. Oil spills such as this are particularly devastating for animals that occupy the ocean surface as the hydrophobic oil and tar floats. This leaves turtles, seabirds, and other surface-dwelling animals in a very vulnerable position as they quickly become coated in the stuff.
"They came to us full of tar. All their trachea from inside and outside was full of tar," said Guy Ivgy, a medical assistant at the center, in an interview with AP News. “We continue to feed them substances like mayonnaise, which practically clean the system and break down the tar.”
As for the oil spill, it still has no confirmed source. An Israeli court initially issued a gag order restricting the publication of any details, at the behest of the government, earlier this week, the New York Times reports. That's not unusual in national security or criminal investigations, but it means where the spill has come from remains unclear, though it's likely a vessel out to sea. Part of this gag order has since been lifted but the ban on publishing the name of the ship and company involved is still in place.