In November 2011, a Chevron drilling accident spilled thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean 75 miles off the Rio de Janeiro coast. The extent of the damage is still unclear, but for one penguin, the disaster would lead to an unlikely friendship.
Foraging for prey during the winter season, Magellanic penguins are known to migrate from their breeding grounds along the coasts of Argentina to as far north as southern Brazil. They are a threatened species. Chronic oil pollution contaminating the seabed affects the way these birds float and thus thwarts their hunt for fish, inadvertently killing tens of thousands through starvation.
That year, on the island of Ilha Grande, 50 miles from Rio de Janeiro, João Pereira de Souza found the oil-covered seafowl weak and starved on a beach by his Provetá home. The days following, the now 71-year-old retired bricklayer and part-time fisherman nursed the penguin back to health, clearing off the oil residue from its tuxedo feathers and nourishing its diet with sardines.
Healthy and given the name Jinjing, the Magellanic penguin continues to visit João every year for eight months in between presumably returning to the penguins’ breeding grounds over 2,000 miles away around the shores of Argentina.
Mario Castro, a local fisherman, tells The Wall Street Journal, “The funniest thing is that the penguin may stay here for a week, then it walks down to the beach and leaves. It spends ten, twelve, fifteen days, and then comes back to the same house.”
Maybe Jinjing just likes the sardines. Or maybe Jinjing feels the same as João. “I love the penguin like it’s my own child, and I believe the penguin loves me,” de Souza told Globo TV. “No one else is allowed to touch him. He pecks them if they do. He lays on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines and to pick him up.”
Like Mumbles’ message about over-fishing in the first Happy Feet movie, hopefully João and his friend Jinjing’s story can raise awareness in the population about ocean wildlife affected by pollution.