For more than three decades, Garfield phones washed up on beaches in Western France. The origin of the novelty cartoon-cat items was a complete mystery, though, and so their presence in the area went unexplained for years. But, finally, it now appears that environmentalists have the answer to this enduring conundrum – thanks in part to a little help from a local farmer.
The Finistère district in Brittany lies on the westernmost point of France. And beyond the land lies the Iroise Sea – a part of the Celtic Sea that itself sits within the larger Atlantic Ocean. But while the Iroise may be small, it’s also mighty. The waters there can be treacherous, in fact, meaning the sea is one of Europe’s most perilous for boats and ships.
Part of the reason that the Iroise Sea is so rough is due to its proximity to the nearby English Channel. You see, since the Channel is shallow by comparison with the deeper Atlantic Ocean, the sharp contrast in depths between the two areas creates forceful currents in the Iroise. And water flows tend to be especially fast-moving in the areas of Goulet de Brest and Raz de Sein.
Given the perilous nature of the Iroise Sea, then, the area has long been home to a number of lighthouses that are intended to guide sailors safely ashore. Even so, plenty of local myths feature sunken vessels and other offshore calamities. Naturally, then, the communities on the Iroise coast are well aware of the dangers that the ocean can pose.
Despite such potential hazards, though, the Iroise Sea has remained a popular shipping route. In fact, the French navy have used the area from the 17th century, when a station was opened in Brest. And since the late 1900s, the Iroise has also functioned as the hub of French submarine activity.
Because of the turbulent nature of the Iroise Sea, however, French authorities run regular search programs in the area. A number of lifeboats are also located in various ports along the coast, ready to spring into action if so required. Yet the inherent risks still don’t prevent some people from heading out on the water for leisure and business purposes.
Fishing still occurs in the Iroise Sea, for example – even if it’s on a smaller scale than previously practised. The most popular spots for angling-related activities include Brest, Le Conquet, Camaret and Douarnenez. And the waters are also an attraction to divers, who like to explore the numerous shipwrecks that lurk beneath the depths.
The Iroise isn’t only attractive to divers and day-trippers, however; it also plays host to an array of marine life. Indeed, although the area has been dogged by pollution and excessive fishing over the years, flora and fauna still manage to thrive there. The sea is unrivaled in Europe when it comes to the diversity of its seaweed, for instance, with several hundred different varieties of marine algae to be found in its waters.
And then there are the many wildlife-spotting opportunities available. Yes, the Iroise doesn’t just contain seaweed; it’s also home to dolphins, seabass, seals, lobsters and sea otters as well as the odd whale, shark and sunfish. The area also attracts an array of seabirds, including herons, guillemots and cormorants.
Thanks to the Iroise’s remarkable host of marine life, then, UNESCO named it as a biosphere reserve in the late 1980s. The French authorities then made the Iroise the nation’s inaugural marine park in 2007. Its full French name is the “Parc naturel marin d’Iroise,” and it covers more than 1,300 square miles of water.
And the Iroise Natural Marine Park’s primary purposes are to protect the sea’s species and habitats, raise awareness of the underwater environment and support various marine activities. The park also happens to be one of Brittany’s most popular tourist attractions – although it must be said that it isn’t the only thing that draws visitors to the area.
The Iroise coastline has plenty of attractions, in fact: beautiful beaches, rocky outcrops and undulating sand dunes as well as picturesque islands and coves. And Finistère itself is also said to be home to some of France’s most enchanting landscapes. For 35 years, however, beaches in the area have been plagued by a very specific kind of pollution.
It all began in the 1980s, when a number of plastic telephones began washing up on the Iroise shoreline. And the items in question were both constructed of garish orange plastic and made in the image of Garfield. For those who don’t recognize the name, the lasagne-loving cat gained fame as a comic character in the ’70s and ’80s and has remained popular ever since.
Garfield began life in a 1978 comic strip, in fact, with the cartoon’s creator, Jim Davis, intending for the cantankerous cat character to be easily marketable. And Davis certainly succeeded in that endeavor, as the strip quickly became a commercial success. Within just a few years of the feline’s print debut, in fact, Garfield was featured in over 1,000 newspapers; by that point, associated merchandise sales had brought in well over $10 million, too.
And in the decades since, the original Garfield comic has proved a moneyspinner, spawning successful TV shows, movies and video games. The cat’s famous fuzzy face has also adorned a range of products including books, toys and clothes; there have even been Garfield-themed Caribbean cruises and a stage musical based on the famous feline.
As for the phones that washed up on the Iroise coast in France, they were yet another form of Garfield merchandise. It’s been reported that the items were manufactured during the 1980s by a company called Tyco. And according to a New York Times article from March 2019, they were functional, too, since they were marketed as “real phones for real fun.”
When intact, the Garfield phones feature a sleeping plastic model of the cat with a receiver on his back. They also make an electric ringing sound when a call comes in, and as the handset is picked up, Garfield’s closed eyelids should raise – as if he’d been disturbed from his slumber. The telephones were intended as novelty items and are reminiscent of the cheeseburger-style phones that were also popular in the 1980s.
What’s more, the Garfield phones can sell for impressive amounts of money on eBay. As of March 2019, prices for the items that are listed on the site start at around $70; one example in its original box even attracted a highest bid of $326.83 with six days still left on the auction.
But while the Garfield phones that attract the most money on eBay are said to be in mint condition, the same certainly couldn’t be said for those that washed up on the Iroise coast. There, plastic parts of the famous feline often appeared in fragments. Sometimes there were whole heads, for instance, while on other occasions there were little paws or the occasional sleepy eye.
No matter what remnants turned up on shore, though, locals knew what they had once been a part of. In 2018 activists from the anti-litter organization Ar Viltansou even singled out the phones when raising awareness of the pollution that besets the area. But while the novelty items ultimately became synonymous with beaches in the region, no one really knew where they were coming from.
And it seemed that no matter how many Garfield parts were removed from Brittany’s beaches, there were always more to replace them. In fact, over the course of 2018, an estimated 200 fragments from the phones were identified on the shoreline across northwestern France.
For three long decades, then, anti-litter activists dutifully collected fragments of the Garfield phones from the shore without any clue as to the items’ origins. Many environmentalists suspected, however, that the merchandise was coming from a missing transport container. Perhaps, it was theorized, the cargo had been lost by a ship in one of the Iroise Sea’s many famous storms.
And if that was the case, the container that had been used to haul the Garfield phones might now be located on the seabed. There were concerns, too, about the damaging effect that the plastic may have on the ocean around it. But if Ar Viltansou could locate the container, then maybe it could put a stop to the Garfield invasion of the Iroise coastline.
In March 2019 Ar Viltansou president Claire Simonin-Le Meur told The Washington Post, “We were looking for [the container], but we had no precise idea of where it could be. We thought it was under the sea. We asked people who were divers to look for it. We get a lot of submarines in the area, too – it’s a military area. But they said it was not possible [that] the container could be there and nobody saw it.”
In fact, it wasn’t until Ar Viltansou raised awareness of the plastic phones that a breakthrough was finally made. Thanks to the press coverage that the campaign received, a farmer named René Morvan had his memory jogged. He recalled the first Garfield that washed up in the early 1980s, following – as some had already suspected – a storm out at sea.
What’s more, Morvan claimed to know where the shipping container that had been spilling out the phones could be found. “At the time, I was between 19 and 20 years old,” he told Franceinfo in March 2019. “There was a big storm. With my brother, we saw phones everywhere on the beach. We are guys from the coast, [and] we decided to go see.”
Morvan further revealed that he and his brother had explored the surrounding cliffs when the tide had receded in order to pinpoint where the container had come to shore. “We had to really know the area,” he told Franceinfo. “We found a container that was stranded in a fault. It was open [and] a lot of things were gone, but there was a stock of phones.”
Given the information that Morvan had shared, then, Simonin-Le Meur thought that members of Ar Viltansou should go look for the container themselves. So they, too, waited until the tide was low enough and went in search of the wreckage. And sure enough, it wasn’t long until the group stumbled on the remains of a container buried deep in a sea cave – as well as a number of Garfield phones strewn across the rocks.
Speaking of the discovery, Simonin-Le Meur told Franceinfo, “Given the pieces of containers that are found – [and] the number of phones, electronic components [and] wires that had never been found before – I’m sure we’re in the right place. The container failed.” Revealing what the group planned to do with the found phones, she added, “We have to take them off. We cannot leave [them] there.”
However, the damaging environmental effects that the lost shipping container had had on the surrounding area were already clear to see. Simonin-Le Meur explained that some broken phones now had dangerous exposed electric elements. In addition, she said, there were starfish entangled in wires and crabs that were using plastic Garfield pieces for shelter.
That said, it’s believed the phones will remain a symbol of marine pollution in the area for some time to come. “Behind the fun character of Garfield, there is plastic pollution that does not decompose in the ocean – and that we will continue to face for years,” Simonin-Le Meur told The New York Times.
Yet what was startlingly clear from the condition of many of the phones was just how hard-wearing the novelty items actually are. In fact, in many cases, Garfield’s painted black stripes were still intact even after decades out in the elements. It therefore seems very unlikely that the telephones will decompose within a human lifespan.
Highlighting the issue in March 2019, Iroise Marine Nature Park’s managing director, Fabien Boileau, told Franceinfo, “It is a waste that is over 30 years old, and we still find almost new pieces… When we talk about the decomposition of plastic, of course some of it ends up in microplastics, but some remain intact. So we really have it for years and years before it disappears.”
Simonin-Le Meur agreed that the plastic phone components would likely survive largely unchanged for many years to come. “I cannot imagine that these phones could ever be completely destroyed, given their state of conservation after more than 30 years in the water,” she told the Daily Mail in March 2019.
“The oceans do not ‘digest’ plastic,” Simonin-Le Meur added. “Sometimes it transforms it into microplastics, which are even more dangerous for fauna and flora. Nothing is lost, nothing is created. Things, at most, change. The bright orange phones are such a regular sight on the beaches of Finistère that new finds are now used to chart the movement of plastic in local waters.”
And while Ar Viltansou hoped that it would be able to stem the flow of Garfields if it found their source, the discovery of the container was largely disappointing for the group. That’s because it was mainly empty, meaning most of the products it had contained had already escaped into the local environment.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Simonin-Le Meur explained, “Our preoccupation was to understand why we had so many Garfields everywhere. We thought it would be helpful to find the container so [that] we can stop it. But that was unfortunately not the case. What we found was the remainder of the shipping container. And it was empty.”
What makes the discovery of the discarded Garfield phones even more concerning is the fact that shipping containers go missing at a frightening rate. From 2008 to 2016, for example, the World Shipping Council found that an average of more than 1,500 containers were lost at sea every year. In a single 2014 incident, 500 containers were displaced from a vessel in the Bay of Biscay.
Subsequently, Maersk – the company in charge of that ship – claimed both that the majority of the containers involved were empty and that none of them had housed hazardous goods. This is likely not the case for other containers that end up in the ocean, however. And by extension, their contents can therefore easily have a detrimental impact upon marine life and coastal areas.
With that in mind, Simonin-Le Meur is hopeful that the story of the Garfield phones will raise awareness of plastic pollution on our planet. “Oceans must open our eyes to the urgency of changing our relationship to plastic,” she told the Daily Mail. “This stance of looking away on the pretext that most maritime problems are hidden underwater is not an acceptable position.”