How the Torrey Canyon oil disaster caused environmental devastation

How Britain’s worst-ever oil spill polluted MILES of the Cornish coast: Torrey Canyon ship ran aground on this day 55 years ago, leaking 100,000 tonnes into the sea – and the recovered oil dumped into a Guernsey quarry still does damage today

  • Exactly 55 years ago, the supertanker ran aground on rocks between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall 
  • What was and still is Britain’s worst ever oil spill killed more than 15,000 sea birds in both the UK and France
  • In an effort to try to reduce the size of the spill by burning off the oil, the RAF haphazardly bombed the wreck 
  • In the bungled clean-up operation, a ‘detergent’ chemical called BP 1002 was sprayed over affected areas 
  • This killed all marine life that it came into contact with and it took up to 15 years for treated areas to recover 
  • It was the day the sea turned black.

    Exactly 55 years ago, the supertanker the SS Torrey Canyon ran aground on rocks between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall and spilled more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil into the ocean.

    What was and still is Britain’s worst ever oil spill killed more than 15,000 sea birds in both the UK and France and seriously contaminated up to 70 miles of beaches.

    In an effort to try to reduce the size of the spill by burning off the oil, the RAF and Royal Navy haphazardly bombed the wreck of the Torrey Canyon to set it on fire – but the flames were repeatedly put out by the high tide and many of the explosives missed their target.

    In the bungled clean-up operation, a ‘detergent’ chemical called BP 1002 was sprayed over affected areas of water and beaches.

    Rather than having the intended effect of breaking down the oil, this killed all marine life that it came into contact with and it took up to 15 years for the treated areas to recover – five times longer than places where the oil dispersed naturally.

    Within days of the disaster, ocean currents had swept much of the oil to the island of Guernsey, which was heavily dependent on tourism and could not cope with having its beaches left in a sorry state.

    With the aim of cleaning up as quickly as possible, officials decided to suck the oil into sewage tankers and dump it in a disused quarry on the island, where much of it remains today.

    As the decades have progressed, the quarry has continued to be a menace for dozens of unfortunate birds that have mistaken the black surface for solid ground.

    It was the day the sea turned black. Exactly 55 years ago, the supertanker the SS Torrey Canyon ran aground on rocks between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall and spilled more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil into the ocean. Above: The fire caused by the RAF's bombing raids on the vessel, which were carried out in the hope of burning off the oil

    It was the day the sea turned black. Exactly 55 years ago, the supertanker the SS Torrey Canyon ran aground on rocks between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall and spilled more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil into the ocean. Above: The fire caused by the RAF’s bombing raids on the vessel, which were carried out in the hope of burning off the oil

    The Torrey canyon hit Pollard's Rock on Seven Stones Reef, which sits between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly – and its hull was torn open

    The Torrey canyon hit Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones Reef, which sits between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly – and its hull was torn open

    What was and still is Britain's worst ever oil spill killed more than 15,000 sea birds in both the UK and France and seriously contaminated up to 70 miles of beaches. Above: An oil-covered bird is held by RSPCA inspector Gilbert Griffiths

    What was and still is Britain’s worst ever oil spill killed more than 15,000 sea birds in both the UK and France and seriously contaminated up to 70 miles of beaches. Above: An oil-covered bird is held by RSPCA inspector Gilbert Griffiths 

    Within days of the disaster, ocean currents had swept much of the oil to the island of Guernsey, which was heavily dependent on tourism and could not cope with having its beaches left in a sorry state. Above: A recent image of the quarry and its oil-filled waters

    Within days of the disaster, ocean currents had swept much of the oil to the island of Guernsey, which was heavily dependent on tourism and could not cope with having its beaches left in a sorry state. Above: A recent image of the quarry and its oil-filled waters

    The Torrey Canyon had been chartered by UK oil firm BP. It had been en route to Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire on the morning of March 18 when its captain opted to take short cut.

    However, he hit Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones Reef, which sits between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly – and the Torrey Canyon’s hull was torn open.

    In the ensuing hours, the ship’s cargo of oil seeped into the surrounding water. By the evening, the slick was eight miles long.

    The following day it had stretched to 20 miles and ended up becoming a 270 square mile smear.

    The crew were finally rescued by lifeboats after failed attempts to shift the tanker off of the rocks.

    Harold Wilson’s Labour government then ordered the ship to be bombed in the hope that the explosives would burn off the leaking oil and also scuttle the vessel. 

    The Torrey Canyon hit rocks between the Scilly Isles and Land's End. The above graphic shows the beaches in mainland Britain, Guernsey and France that were affected

    The Torrey Canyon hit rocks between the Scilly Isles and Land’s End. The above graphic shows the beaches in mainland Britain, Guernsey and France that were affected 

    In the bungled clean-up operation, a 'detergent' chemical called BP 1002 was sprayed over affected areas of water and beaches. Above: Drums that were filled with the chemical are seen on Cornish beach Whitesand Bay

    In the bungled clean-up operation, a ‘detergent’ chemical called BP 1002 was sprayed over affected areas of water and beaches. Above: Drums that were filled with the chemical are seen on Cornish beach Whitesand Bay

    On March 20 1967, the Daily Mail reported on the 'battle' to stop the oil from the Torrey Canyon doing damage to Cornwall's beaches

    On March 20 1967, the Daily Mail reported on the ‘battle’ to stop the oil from the Torrey Canyon doing damage to Cornwall’s beaches

    The paper reported later that the ship had split in two and spilt millions more gallons of oil into the surrounding ocean

    The paper reported later that the ship had split in two and spilt millions more gallons of oil into the surrounding ocean

    Over the course of two days, 62,000lbs of explosives were dropped on the ship and waters around it.

    The RAF and Royal Navy also dropped aviation fuel and even napalm on the area to help burn the oil.

    Predictably, even though many of the explosives missed their targets, the fire that did result from the tactic sent smoke soaring hundreds of feet into the air.

    Dramatic images showed the extent of the plume of toxic fumes. After the further damage caused by the bombing raids, the vessel finally broke up and sank on March 30.

    Along with the birds that were killed, seals and other marine life perished and Cornwall’s tourism was heavily impacted.

    Brittany in northern France was heavily impacted by the oil slick, with the bulk of sea birds being killed there.

    The RSPB also estimated that around 85 per cent of puffins on the French coast were killed and it took several decades for the population to recover. 

    The Torrey Canyon had been chartered by UK oil firm BP. It had been en route to Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire on the morning of March 18 when its captain opted to take short cut

    The Torrey Canyon had been chartered by UK oil firm BP. It had been en route to Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire on the morning of March 18 when its captain opted to take short cut

    However, he hit Pollard's Rock on Seven Stones Reef, which sits between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly – and the Torrey Canyon's hull was torn open

    However, he hit Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones Reef, which sits between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly – and the Torrey Canyon’s hull was torn open

    The 61,000 ton tanker Torrey Canyon goes up in smoke after being blasted by Royal Navy Buccaneer bombers

    The 61,000 ton tanker Torrey Canyon goes up in smoke after being blasted by Royal Navy Buccaneer bombers

    Firemen and fishermen are seen surrounded by a swirling oily sludge off the coast of the Cornish town of Porthleven

    Firemen and fishermen are seen surrounded by a swirling oily sludge off the coast of the Cornish town of Porthleven

    In the hope that it would break down the oil, more than two million gallons of the chemical BP 1002 was sprayed on the affected waters.

    Hoses were also squirted over beaches. However, whilst this did break the oil down, it meant that it slipped below the surface of the water and was ingested by marine life.

    It ended up killing every organism that it came into contact with.

    In France, the authorities did not use any chemicals and instead let the oil come ashore before scooping it up.

    Oil that remained gradually dissipated and did less damage in the long-term.

    In Guernsey, the local authorities sucked the oil into sewage tankers and then dumped it into a disused quarry.

    Since then, the spot has become known as Torrey Canyon quarry and much of the oil has remained.

    Soldiers install floating booms to prevent oil slick, on April 20, 1967 on Perros-Guirec beach, in Brittany, northern France

    Soldiers install floating booms to prevent oil slick, on April 20, 1967 on Perros-Guirec beach, in Brittany, northern France

    Children and other volunteers are seen using watering cans and buckets to spread the BP 1002 chemical  on the beach at Marazion. At the time, it was believed it would help to break down the oil

    Children and other volunteers are seen using watering cans and buckets to spread the BP 1002 chemical  on the beach at Marazion. At the time, it was believed it would help to break down the oil

    A young bird covered in oil from the Torrey Canyon spreads his wings in a vain effort to fly, but the slick coating his weathers disables him

    A young bird covered in oil from the Torrey Canyon spreads his wings in a vain effort to fly, but the slick coating his weathers disables him

    A thick swirl of oil surround Porthleven, Cornwall. The south-westerly county was not the only place impacted by the spill

    A thick swirl of oil surround Porthleven, Cornwall. The south-westerly county was not the only place impacted by the spill

    Smoke rises from the stricken oil tanker 'Torrey Canyon' near Seven Stones Reef, Land's End, Cornwall, after the Royal Navy dropped explosives

    Smoke rises from the stricken oil tanker ‘Torrey Canyon’ near Seven Stones Reef, Land’s End, Cornwall, after the Royal Navy dropped explosives

    Oil from the tanker Torrey Canyon glistens on rocks as troops spray detergent at the small beach and bathing area of Dollar Cove in the Cornish hamlet of Gunwalloe

    Oil from the tanker Torrey Canyon glistens on rocks as troops spray detergent at the small beach and bathing area of Dollar Cove in the Cornish hamlet of Gunwalloe

    The Torrey Canyon is seen sinking off the coast of Cornwall after it ran aground. It leaked more than 100,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean

    The Torrey Canyon is seen sinking off the coast of Cornwall after it ran aground. It leaked more than 100,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean

    Soldiers and volunteers citizens clean up oil slick, 13 April 1967 on the beach of Port-Blanc, in Brittany, northern France

    Soldiers and volunteers citizens clean up oil slick, 13 April 1967 on the beach of Port-Blanc, in Brittany, northern France

    Soldiers clean up oil slick, on April 16, 1967 on the beach of Perros-Guirec, in Brittany, northern France. French beaches were heavily impacted by the disaster

    Soldiers clean up oil slick, on April 16, 1967 on the beach of Perros-Guirec, in Brittany, northern France. French beaches were heavily impacted by the disaster

    A decision to introduce micro-organisms into the water in the hope that they would convert the oil into water and carbon dioxide is said to have had limited success.

    Down the decades, hundreds of birds have lost their lives after landing on the oil-filled water.

    The Government’s clean-up operation cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds.

    Attempts to recover cash from the tanker’s owners – the Barracuda Tanker Corporation – proved nearly impossible.

    In an attempt to secure compensation, British lawyer Anthony O’Conner served a writ against the firm by sneaking aboard the Torrey Canyon’s sister ship, the Lake Palourde, when she was moored in Singapore.

    He made it aboard the vessel by pretending to be a whisky salesman and then stuck the writ to the mast.

    French naval speedboats ended up chasing the vessel but were unable to board her to serve their own writ on behalf of the French government.

    Sir Elwyn Jones, the then Attorney General, told Parliament seven months after the disaster that the Barracuda Tanker Corporation was trying to limit its liability in the U.S. courts to just $50.

    In the end, compensation of £3million was paid but this was only a small fraction of the clean-up costs and costs to the tourism industry.

    Men equipped with masks are seen spraying a British beach after the Torrey Canyon disaster in March 1967

    Men equipped with masks are seen spraying a British beach after the Torrey Canyon disaster in March 1967

    Pople at Land's End, Cornwall, watching the bombing of the stricken tanker the 'Torrey Canyon. The Government ordered the bombing in the hope it would burn off the oil

    Pople at Land’s End, Cornwall, watching the bombing of the stricken tanker the ‘Torrey Canyon. The Government ordered the bombing in the hope it would burn off the oil