There is something surreal about Nantucket in winter, especially this winter. In Nantucket town, all ancient cobblestone and brick, a pianist plays Clair de Lune during dinner at the Jared Coffin House. Neither he nor the music seems to belong, so far away in a dreary sea. Candlelight flickers around him, reflected in fine old mirrors, and the voices of the diners are hushed, but they speak of an ugly thing, the wreck of the 641-foot Liberian tanker Argo Merchant. Its 7.6 million gallons of No. 6 oil are streaming out to sea, for now, at least, but it is Nantucket's sea, and that does not seem real.
The Argo Merchant ran aground in a storm on Dec. 15, 27 miles southeast of Nantucket, and the mishap seemed to set a pattern for what was left of 1976, as Liberian oil tankers all but laid siege to the western Atlantic. On Dec. 24 more than 7.000 gallons from the Oswego Peace seeped into Connecticut's Thames. Three days later the tanker Olympic Games spilled 134,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River at Marcus Hook, Pa. Then on the 29th the tanker Daphne went aground off Puerto Rico, with 14 million gallons aboard, unspilled but menacing. But the greatest outrage is the Argo Merchant's—the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Conservationists are fuming, and on the Delaware and Thames and off Nantucket, birds are dying.
It was not just how much oil; it was also where it spilled. Nantucket had always seemed inviolate. Some 120 miles to the northeast is one of the world's most productive commercial fishing grounds, Georges Bank, with stores of cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, lobster and sea scallops. Some scientists are predicting doom for Georges if the oil gets there and sinks. Some say it already has. But there is agreement as to the devastation of the area's bird life, especially the diving birds—the loons, the auks and the murres.
Dozens of scientists have arrived in Nantucket to study oil-soaked birds, which are coming ashore sick and dying, and to prepare for the oil slick, if it should follow. The man coordinating the scientific effort is Dr. Wesley Tiffney, an ecologist, who says, " Nantucket is the most unpolluted ecosystem on the New England coast. That is why a lot of people are up here and willing to work very hard."
The longer the slick stays at sea and the more it spreads out, the faster it will break up and dissipate. But the unseasonable west winds that have been nudging it southeast for the past two weeks will certainly not blow forever. A typical New England winter nor'easter could come at any time, and the island built by whale oil could be undone by a very different kind.
If the oil from the Argo Merchant reaches the shores of Nantucket it will cause a disaster. There are two means of livelihood on the island, a $1 million bay scallop industry, and tourism; summer visitors who stay from one to seven days are worth $10 to $15 million to the island's economy, and most come for the beaches and the fishing. The scallops might not survive a blanket of oil, and the tourists might just stay away. And no one knows how Nantucket's famed bluefish and striped bass runs would be affected.
The Argo Merchant's oil has been variously described as having the consistency of chocolate pudding, Vaseline and Jell-O. In any case, it is the kind that squishes between your toes and sticks. Three pollution-control firms have been retained by the Coast Guard, and they are standing by to boom off coastal areas. But they cannot protect all the miles of shore at the same time, or any shore in the high winter surf that is the rule on much of the island.
On Nantucket, though, life goes on as always. It is hard to fear something you cannot see. To find out where the slick is on any given day, a Nantucketer must buy an off-island newspaper or call the Coast Guard at Otis Air Force Base. 35 miles away on Cape Cod. On Jan. 2 the slick was 27 miles off the island covering an area 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. A Coast Guard plane goes out each day to locate the slick—and it usually takes most of the day to do so—and to plot its expanding perimeter. Guard spokesmen claim that the slick poses no threat to either Nantucket or Georges Bank, but the Guard took a lot of flak for failing to prevent the spill, and there are those who fear its optimism is mere whistling in the dark. Still, for now, the only tangible reminder of what waits offshore is oil-soaked birds.
To capture them, and to save some, five Nantucket sportsmen have volunteered to patrol the island's shorelines in four-wheel-drive vehicles—the 80 miles of sound and ocean beach and six great ponds. They have plenty of assistants—some days 60 or more—and the assistants have been warned to leave the birds alone. One young girl was badly bitten on the nose by a gull, and too many exhausted birds are being chased back into a rough surf to die. But rescuing birds is a crusade on Nantucket. On Christmas Day, Bob Marks, one of the five coordinators, had 36 calls from people who had spotted oiled birds. One caller said he had been waiting 4� hours for Marks to make his patrol. "Don't you want to pick it up?" he yelled. "It's Christmas," Marks said. "Well, the birds don't have Christmas," replied St. Francis of Nantucket.
They didn't. Not this year, at least. As the slick spread, their hazards grew; the birds are attracted to it. For one thing, oil calms the seas and provides a place to rest. For another, diving, fish-eating birds, like loons, auks, and murres, seem to associate slicks with feeding predators and scraps offish. The various species of sea gulls have suffered the least, because they do not dive. But many diving birds have become completely coated with oil, which creates a variety of problems. Oil destroys the insulating capacity of their feathers, and the hollow cores, normally warm, become cold. Many birds contract pneumonia and freeze to death. Others spend so much time preening—trying to clean themselves—that they are too exhausted to feed, and starve to death; or they are poisoned when they swallow the toxic oil.