A Brief History of Oil Pollution in the Oceans, featuring Torrey Canyon incident

Written by Brian Morgan, Marinet member — a short biography about Brian Morgan is available on his Marinet blog page.


The Torrey Canyon Incident

This article relates to oil pollution at sea, and especially the far reaching effects of the Torrey Canyon incident.

The Torrey Canyon was an oil tanker, en route from Kuwait to Milford Haven, laden with 173,000 tonnes of crude oil. At about 9am on Saturday morning 18th March 1967, this 800 foot long vessel grounded on the Seven Stones Rocks, some 17 miles off Land’s End.

Before proceeding, please allow me to give you some background to overall marine oil pollution.


Some Background to Oil Pollution of Marine Environments.

Oil from underground sources has been with us since time immemorial, present in the environment from natural leakage and seismic upheaval. This still occurs regularly in San Francisco Harbour and the Far East.

The first abstraction of oil was done long ago in China from about 350 BC, using bamboo technology. By about 1000 AD the Chinese were abstracting oil by drilling to depths of up to 800 feet with a jade bit attached to a connection of bamboo poles. This oil was used to extract salt from brine by means of evaporation, and large networks of bamboo pipelines connected the drilling sites to the evaporation pits. This remained an active industry until modern times.

Asphalt and tarmac, using oil from natural leaks, have also been long used.

The first openly recorded marine oil spillage was at Santa Rita, in Peru, in 1907. Later there were several further oil spills there, continuing to the present day, which brought fierce reaction from the indigenous peoples whose fishing livelihoods had been affected as in Mongabay.

It is worth noting that the Chinese have been using “nodding donkeys” in Manchuria for well over a century, and have been largely self-sufficient. They call them “Yes men”.
There were many minor incidents during wartime, often not recorded and then only in military papers.

There had been incidents around the world, and these increased as the demand for oil increased, but I could find little data readily available until after 1967, and the “Big Torrey Canyon wake-up call”.

The Cold War had brought in a degree of paranoia and the Western Powers were concerned about a forced takeover of the oil producing areas by the Soviets so that they could hold the West to ransom. The USA had even started using its protected sources in Texas.

The USA were so paranoid that they employed a CIA team, with the consent of the Arabs, to prepare for disabling of the oil fields by explosives, all to be installed at very short notice.

The Arabs had also started installing surface pipes to move the oil long distances to lesser known ports where they built underground storage facilities. They even converted passenger ships into small camouflaged tankers.

This all came to a head in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred not too long after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The paranoia was lessening a little bit by about the time of Torrey Canyon.

Around then larger tankers were beginning to be built and were increasingly open about their movements.

The accompanying accredited maps indicate which oil spills were happening in later periods.


In Europe


In The USA


The Cedre map indicates what was happening worldwide, with source and distribution:


Location of Major Spills

2020 Oil Tanker spill Statistics full report

For further information please contact Naa Sackeyfio, Information Data Analyst


Global Oil Spill Trend, 1970 to 2020, with greater detail here:

These references also name the causes of far more collisions, in their tables. Before the Torrey Canyon, local spills were largely dealt with by Naval teams.


My initial private investigations, before Torrey Canyon

During the summers at the Plymouth Laboratory we held courses for university students in marine physiology and ecology and for this we took them on beach trips. One of the best places locally was Wembury beach with its rocks and pools. One time in 1965 I found this normally unpolluted beach covered in a layer of thick black oil which, before this, had already been common near the junction with the Devonport Dockyard and the rivers Tamar and Lynher. Following the Torrey Canyon the general laws against oil pollution at sea were tightened.

I saw this as an on-going problem which at that time had largely been ignored, or which was being treated quietly in enclosed harbours by a small dedicated team from the Royal Navy. I saw it as a major potential hazard for the future with fewer disguised tankers and with increasingly larger ones coming into service following a lessening of the Cold War paranoia. So I started quietly investigating it and how it could best be tackled on both the small and large scale.

On this occasion in 1965 a passing ship had illegally discharged oil offshore of Wembury Bay and had done so on the rising tide which was quite a common occurrence, but here made more obvious by the enclosed nature of the Bay.

I took samples back to the laboratory and tucked this work in quietly alongside my normal investigations.

I totally ruled out the use of detergents and looked for physical methods such as restraining by a simple floating barrage, pumping off the surface, or by absorbing the oil in dead grass, bracken and straw and collecting it just after high tide. I found the most effective method at the time was to cover it with cement kiln dust, a waste product from the electrostatic separation of fine particles from the smoke. This produced a powder which was so fine that it ran like water.

I found it flocculated on the surface, then gradually formed solid oil pebbles which sank to the bottom in a seemingly harmless way. These disappeared from the pools over a period of months.

I investigated past spills and found very little data, apart from the spillages in San Francisco Harbour in 1907, 1922 and 1937. These were spills in the thousands of tonnes. I found no wartime data, nor post-war, despite the thousands of spills of all sizes which must have occurred.


Table of Recorded Historic Spillages in America

There was little more information than this available at the time.

In fact I could find no other data of large spills prior to the Torrey Canyon — an enormous wake-up call worldwide.


The Organised Investigation at the Plymouth Laboratory — my personal memories

We were all summoned to the Common Room, and told that the laboratory would be dedicated to matters of marine oil pollution for the next six weeks. This ended up nearer six months.

The grounding of the Torrey Canyon was because of navigational errors. There were differences between the Captain and the helmsman and, because of a change in intended route, there were no navigational maps of the Lands End area available on the ship.

One was convinced they were on automatic pilot, the other on conventional steerage.

They had come a long way from Kuwait and were heading for the fairly restricted channel to Milford Haven.

The government’s response was initially one of horror, with the largest ever recorded oil spill right on their door step. They considered all options but the weather was too rough to allow full use of a temporary barrage, and pumping the oil into another tanker was also not feasible at the time with the rocks so close by.

They got the Navy to spread tens of thousands of gallons of BP1002 detergent, used all the stocks and then BP hastily made more at their base in Scotland.

It was then decided to sink the vessel entirely by bombing. This was done with overkill and only one of the many bombs used actually hit the target. There was a cartoon in a national paper shortly afterwards: “What, had no practice recently?”

The bombing actually made the situation worse. The oil had different effects on sands and on rocks, on miniature sealife and on sea birds, each of which were being monitored and studied separately.

The Navy sailed several frigates through the area pouring detergent directly onto the sea. This along with the bombing were directly contrary to advice from scientists at the Plymouth Laboratory.

The Navy collected samples for analysis without seeming to know what was to be analysed. The only laboratory dedicated to measurements of oil and detergent at the time was in Edinburgh.

From our point of view, all that was needed were separating funnels and basic testing of the water fraction for dispersal which we could have easily provided.

The Navy collected these samples in the only large bottles they had to hand – pint milk bottles in a milk crate – and sent these by rail towards Edinburgh. At Paddington a guard was convinced it was all rotten milk, and emptied the bottles into a drain!

As a specialist in physical testing at the laboratory, I was asked to quickly come up with a test for oil dispersed in sea water and I did this work together with Dr Geoff Bryan. This was using the component “Oil Red O”.

I was then asked to devise a simple machine which allowed samples of sand and oil to be lifted up and down into seawater on a six hourly basis, mimicking the tides, in pierced test tubes. Meantime the other research workers got on with their many different assigned tasks.

We followed the movements of the oil slicks from the wreck and found that it moved at about 3.3% of the wind speed. So the destinations could be and were charted.

The Cornish beaches had already been harmed in a long term way. Therefore we were asked to look at the beaches of Brittany which had not, at that time, been subjected to detergents.

As a result I brought my Wembury Bay experiences usefully into play. The local people were already absorbing oil by putting herbal roughage on at low tide, and collecting it just after high tide. On my suggestion they started to use straw which was more effective.

Cement kiln dust was not available, so I suggested agricultural chalk but they came up with a better version. French blackboard chalk is made of calcium carbonate and it contains some stearate, which assimilates the oil even better the cement kiln dust, in contrast to our chalk which is basically gypsum.

By the time the oil had arrived at Brittany most of the lighter fractions had evaporated off, so it was even more sticky than before.

Here I suggested the use of steam cleaning as I knew the temperature of the steam would loosen it from rock surfaces as well as partially decomposing it. The loosened oil quickly disappeared into the sea, leaving just a very small amount of oil at the base of a few rocks. Only the intertidal creatures and sea birds seemed to have been affected and unlike in Cornwall, the tourism trade was barely halted.

The Cornish beaches changed dramatically. After the clearance, such as it was, the beaches were intensely green as the detergent had killed off the miniature herbivores without really affecting the deep rooted grasses and seaweeds. The detergent also removed the fine organic matter that usually bonds sands to some degree. As a result the sands became very mobile, with movements of several metres with the tides. Some even had to be fenced off as they had effectively become dangerous quicksands. It took the Cornish beaches at least three years to recover from the detergent and oil.


Large Oil Spills after Torrey Canyon



Torrey Canyon, Oil Pollution and Marine Life, MBA Plymouth, 1967. Full report downloadable free at plymsea.ac. Also see, www.mba.ac.uk/50th-anniversary-environmental-disaster (Comprehensive report on oil pollution from practical experience, and detailing ecological consequences.)

Understanding Black Tides, cedre,fr 2007. See this link for further detail about Cedre: wwz.cedre.fr/en/About-Cedre Downloadable via link, usage of contents only with permission. (Comprehensive and high quality report, on marine oil pollution.)

European Environment Agency, EN15, Accidental oil spills from marine shipping. See: www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/en15-accidental-oil-spills-from/en15-accidental-oil-spills-from (Includes graphs and maps of spills in Europe).

Oil Spills in the United States, Wiki. (Includes useful map of oil spills1969 to 2010). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Oil_spills_in_the_United_States

Rosprirodnazor , Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources in Russia. Wiki. (Informative, with links to very brave whistleblowers, and a Time News video.) See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Service_for_Supervision_of_Natural_Resourcesand and, in particular, the references section in this listing.

Oil Spills, our world in data, 2016, Rosen, ourworldindata.org. See: https://ourworldindata.org/oil-spills

ITOPF, Oil Tanker Spill Statistics, 2020. See: www.itopf.org/knowledge-resources/data-statistics/statistics


Endnote: The Consequences of the Torrey Canyon Incident

The Marpol agreement, see: www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/Pages/International-Convention-for-the-Prevention-of-Pollution-from-Ships-(MARPOL).aspx

Open data on oil spills. See IOTPF above.

Improved design of ships and, after a peak late 70’s, fewer spills.

Improved navigation systems and training.

Improved awareness, via the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and other reports, of ecological damage to intertidal areas and wildlife along with their better protection.


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