Digital nomadism always brings us the most wonderful places. A lucky coincidence leads us to Portsall in the department of Finistère, in the westernmost part of Brittany – the end of the world (or the gateway to the new world). There is nothing to indicate that 44 years ago one of the greatest ecological catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions took place here.


Portsall

A spacious house for us alone, well furnished, good internet connection, generous garden for Aika – 50 metres away we meet the 1800 kilometre coastal path GR34, in French „sentier des douaniers“ (customs officers‘ path). The morning starts with a walk with Aika, along the coastal path, past Kern beach

The offshore islet of Kern is only accessible at low tide. Stone whales still bear witness to the prehistoric burial sites, which were then converted into emplacements during the Second World War. The tides offer an incredibly impressive natural spectacle.

Seven metres of tidal range; with a high coefficient; every six hours. The small beach core grows into a stony landscape overgrown with seaweed at low tide.

The tidal fishermen „Pêche à Pieds“ are out on the prowl, turning every stone in search of Araignées de mer, crabes, crevettes, homards, huîtres, bigorneaux, bulots, Coquilles Saint-Jacques…or seaweed collectors:inside. Of the almost 800 species of seaweed found in Brittany, about ten are edible and allowed for sale. A young passionate seaweed collector and cook offers me her first Riementang or „sea spaghetti“ to taste.

A few hours later, the sea has reclaimed these exposed areas. Almost imperceptibly, stone after stone is tenderly enveloped by the inrushing water and slowly disappears, while during storms metre-high waves crash against the rocky coast and fountains explode against the sky.

Seaweed

The use of algae has been of great importance in cooking or cosmetics since the 17th century.

When the wind blows from the north, the tide washes up dead algae, which farmers often collect with tractors and loading wagons as fertiliser for their fields, or as highly combustible fuel for large fires at festive events. When the wind blows from the south, the tidal range and the ocean current take the algae away again, leaving behind a sandy beach that is as clean as a mirror.


The catastrophe

all pictures from „Bleu Pétrole“, Fanny Montgermont

On the morning of 16 March 1978 – gale force 10 and waves up to 15 metres high – the Amoco Cadiz, a fully loaded oil tanker belonging to the US Amoco Oil Corporation, flying the Liberian flag on its way from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam, drifted towards the rocky coast of Portsall. The ship is poorly maintained. A rudder failure renders it unable to manoeuvre

The captain shuts down the engines and requests help. Valuable hours passed as disputes arose over salvage costs between the two masters of the Amoco Cadiz and the ocean-going tug Pacific. The German tugboat is not powerful enough to prevent further drifting towards the rocky coast. The attempt to anchor also failed due to the high swell.



Around midnight, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground on the rock Men Gaulven off Portsall. The French navy managed to rescue the crew by helicopter.

The cargo of 223,000 tonnes of crude oil as well as the ship’s fuel entered the sea unhindered and contaminated the waters and more than 350 kilometres of the coasts of northwest France over the next few weeks. The disaster management was overwhelmed with such a quantity of oil. The equipment held in readiness for the spill was distributed over large distances along the coast and in some cases had to be transported over long distances to the site of the accident

The coordination had many weak points. The area into which the tanker was driven was completely unsuitable for large ships because of the dense, confusing juxtaposition of shallow and deep areas. Tankers to which the cargo of the Amoco Cadiz was to be transferred could not reach the wreck because of these numerous shallows, which were only inaccurately marked on the nautical charts.

However, the „murder“ of nature, as one furious rescuer put it at the time, was prevented. 40,000 soldiers and thousands of deeply affected volunteers contributed to this

Last but not least, bacteria and some species of algae also contributed to a self-cleaning effect, decomposing the hydrocarbons under the favourably warm conditions caused by the Gulf Stream.

Over a period of six months, about 20 000 tonnes of the sticky black mass were painstakingly picked away from rocks and beaches. An estimated 15 000 birds died because their feathers were stuck together

In one day alone, about 28 million dead animals – fish, mussels, sea urchins, snails – were recovered from the sea. 6000 tons of oysters perish. It takes more than seven years for marine species and oyster farming to fully recover.

The French government and the affected communities sued the Amoco company in the United States. After 14 years of tireless struggle, they were awarded 1.257 billion francs (190 million euros), less than half the amount they had demanded

The Amoco Cadiz is still moored off Portsall and is popular with divers. At low tide, a small part of the wreck is still visible – behind the islet of Kern. The memory is still vivid. Even 44 years after this apocalyptic disaster, I regularly hear this story – from older people I meet on my walks with Aika.


Bleu Pétrole

Book referenceMorizur
& Montgermont
„Bleu Pétrole“
© 2017 Bamboo éditionwww.bamboo.fr


In the picture book „Bleu Pétrole“, Gwénola Morizur describes her own family saga, which is closely linked to this environmental disaster. Although she was born only three years after the drama, she knows the story inside out, especially the struggle of her grandfather and then mayor Alphonse Arzel. Fanny Montgermont illustrated the book.

Le combat d’un homme pour que les pollueurs soient les payeurs
16 mars 1978 : le pétrolier Amoco Cadiz s’échoue sur les rochers de Portsall, dans le Finistère. 220 000 tonnes de pétrole brut sont déversées sur près de 400 kilomètres de côtes bretonnes, provoquant l’une des plus grandes marées noires du siècle. Léon, the mayor of the small community, decides to pursue the responsible parties and engages in the fight against the company that owns the Amoco, up to the trial in the United States, which lasts for twenty years. À ses côtés, sa fille Bleu vit de plein fouet la catastrophe et s’en fait le témoin. Elle nous livre ses souvenirs : leur vie de famille et les liens qui les unissent. L’espoir. La persévérance. Bleu Pétrole is their history.