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Fifty years after the wreck of the Torrey Canyon - The work of the Marine Biological Association of the UK on acute impacts and subsequent recovery

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The Torrey Canyon disaster in 1967 was the first involving a new generation of super-tankers and the first major oil spill in British and European waters. In addition to the enormous damage to marine life and the livelihoods of local people, it turned parts of the Cornish coast into a laboratory for a long-term study which revealed how rocky shores treated with toxic dispersants took 13-15 years to recover: around 5 times longer than those where the oil was dispersed naturally by wind and waves.

The Torrey Canyon was wrecked on 18th March 1967 on the Pollard Rock of the Seven Stones reef, 15 miles (25 km) from Land’s End, Cornwall, UK (Figure 1). The 970 foot (300 m) tanker was bound for oil refineries at Milford Haven with 117,000 tons of Kuwait crude oil. She struck the rocks at 17 knots, tearing open six of her 18 storage tanks and less severely damaging the others. Salvage attempts failed. The ship progressively broke up over the next six weeks due to storm damage and bombing on the 28th, 29th and 30th March in an attempt to burn up the oil. She finished a submerged, broken wreck, being officially declared to contain no more oil towards the end of April 1967.

At the time, the Torrey Canyon oil spill attracted much media attention and political intervention. The Prime Minister at the time, Harold Wilson, took a personal interest. He had a holiday home on the Isles of Scilly, seven miles to the southwest of the wreck. It was also the first spill involving the first generation of super-tankers. Furthermore, it was treated – excessively in many instances – by the first generation of dispersants. These were in effect industrial cleaning agents – euphemistically called detergents at the time (e.g. Smith 1968). More damage was done by the dispersant applied (10,000 tons) than by the oil itself (14,000 tons) that came ashore in west Cornwall.

All the staff of the Marine Biological Association of the UK (MBA) were mobilised to deal with the environmental impacts of the spill for six weeks (Smith 1968). The MBA’s research vessel Sarsia was on the scene within a week or so after the wreck.
Chief Scientist Gerald Boalch, present on board the vessel at the time recalled: “When we steamed west on Sarsia the first thing we noticed before we saw the oil was the dreadful sickening smell. When we did reach the oil it was like a thick rust-red layer on the surface. Local boats were out spraying the oil with detergent and the oil was obviously being broken up and dispersing. We realised that the detergent was breaking up the oil but was probably making it more accessible to the marine life. At that time we had no information on the toxicity of the detergent. We sampled the plankton in the area where the oil was being treated and under the microscope could see that some species of the plankton were being killed.”

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