- Torrey Canyon
- Accident date
- Accident area
- Isles of Scilly
- Spill area
- Cause of spill
- Quantity transported
- 121,000 tonnes
- Nature of pollutant
- Crude oil
- Quantity spilled
- 121,000 tonnes
- Ship / structure type
- Oil tanker
- Built date
- 297.03 m
- 38.25 m
On 18th March 1967, the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Torrey Canyon, owned by an American subsidiary of the Union Oil Company of California, was transporting 121,000 tonnes of crude oil when it ran aground between the Isles of Scilly and the British coast. Despite the mobilisation of all the available response equipment, several oil slicks were left drifting in the Channel and reached the shores of Britain and France.
A response command centre was established in Plymouth. Around 10,000 tonnes of dispersants were sprayed onto the oil slick. It was later shown that some of the dispersants used were in fact more toxic than the oil itself.
On the northern coast of Brittany, manual recovery operations were organised. Straw was used to absorb the oil.
Around 4,000 tonnes of waste was recovered on the beaches of Guernsey and 4,200 tonnes on the French shores.
After having considered towing the ship out to sea or pumping the remaining oil out of its tanks, the authorities decided to bomb the vessel and burn the remaining oil during operations carried out from 28th to 30th March 1967.
The disaster occurred in the midst of the seabird migration period, causing thousands of birds to be affected by the oil. Rehabilitation efforts only succeeded in saving 1% of the oiled birds. An estimated 25,000 birds died due to oil ingestion, pneumonia, exposure to the harmful cleaning agents used...
The Torrey Canyon disaster was the first to place the dangers of dispersant use in the international spotlight. It brought Europe's attention to a risk that had thus far been overlooked. To respond to this spill, a large quantity of dispersant was used, without any consideration being paid to its ecological impact. In retrospect, it turned out that the oil/dispersant mixture was more toxic for the environment than the oil alone.
It took 5 to 8 years for the oiled shores to be cleaned naturally, while it took the areas affected by the oil/dispersant mixture 9 to 10 years. A study carried out in 1978 (11 years after the spill) showed that a species of hermit crab has still not reappeared in the area affected by the spill.
What has changed
This incident resulted in the first elements of French, British and European oil spill prevention and response policies. The British government decided to organise a meeting of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO, later to become IMO). The aim of this meeting was to highlight the changes in and complexity of international maritime laws.
Television documentaries on the Torrey Canyon INA online archives
ITOPF Incident summary and bibliography
Météo France. Oil slick drift (animation)
Simpson A.-C. The Torrey Canyon disaster and fisheries. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: 1968
Burrows P., Rowley C. and Owen D. Torrey Canyon: a case study in accidental pollution. Scottish Journal of Political Economy. 1974, vol. 21, n°3, pp. 237-258
NOAA database (IncidentNews)
Retrospective of the incident, 50 years later
Torrey Canyon oil spill in pictures