Why Do Garfield Phones Keep Washing Ashore On This Little French Town?

For nearly four decades, a weird phenomenon has been happening on the peninsula known as Brittany. Located in the northwestern region of France, Brittany borders the Iroise Sea. A small part of the Celtic Sea, the Iroise Sea is one of Europe’s most dangerous waterways (via World Atlas). With its strong currents affected by swells, along with wind waves caused by its geographical location, the rocky coast of the region is littered with shipwrecks.

Sometime around 1982, a random storm wrecked an unknown shipping vessel along the rocky cliffs of the Iroise Sea coast. While there is no official record of the wreck or how many containers were actually lost, local residents began noticing Garfield phones washing ashore (via The Washington Post). Over the next three-plus decades, replicas of the fat orange cat repeatedly washed ashore, in various states of completeness. In fact, according to The Washington Post, some 200 parts from the Tyco manufactured phones littered the coast in 2018 alone.

A merchandising phenomenon

Created by cartoonist Jim Davis, Garfield made his comic strip debut in newspapers across the U.S. in 1978. Initially running in only 40 papers (via the Independent) with the Chicago Sun-Times dropping the strip shortly after its launch, Garfield became a smash hit. The orange cat would feature in 850 newspapers by 1981 (via Comics Alliance). 

A virtual avalanche of merchandise was produced to capitalize on the feline’s success. Everything from books compiling the famous comic strip to stuffed animals and phones were manufactured; everyone and anyone was trying to get in on the Garfield juggernaut. Tyco Toys, in fact, created the first Garfield phone in 1978. A replica of the tubby tabby, the phone was a bastion of modern technology, complete with eyes that opened when the receiver was lifted off the unit (via Billie’s Phone Museum). While actual sales and production numbers aren’t available, the phones proved popular enough for Tyco to send multiple shipping containers of the famous feline to a hungry world.

It was the early ’80s, when locals and tourists of Brittany, France’s Iroise Sea began to take notice of the strange phenomenon of plastic, orange pieces washing ashore. Eventually, a theory came together: A shipping vessel containing Tyco’s Garfield phones went down in the treacherous waters. In doing so, its cargo was released into the ocean (via Engadget). Because of the rocky terrain that makes up the coast, there was no real way for anyone, the French government or otherwise, to verify any of the facts that surrounded the mystery shipping container(s). The only proof officials had of the situation was Garfield’s smirking countenance continually washing onto the beaches of the coast.

Unknowable environmental impact

In 2019, Rene Morvan, a local to the French province, informed authorities that he discovered the wayward shipping container in the cliffs of the Iroise Sea. While exploring the coast with his brother, Morvan discovered the shipping container wedged into a cave (via The Washington Post). Officials quickly discovered, however, the container was empty, save for a few phone fragments, per Atlas Obscura. The Iroise Sea had already claimed the container’s bounty. 

While the mystery of the Garfield phones has been solved, the environmental impact they are having is not entirely known. According to Claire Simonin-Le Meur, president of the volunteer organization known as Ar Viltansoù (whose goal is to clean French beaches on a regular basis), the depth of the environmental problem is unknowable. “They say in 400 years the plastic will degrade, which is to say instead of big, visible pieces of plastic, it will be present in small quantities everywhere, in the water, in the air, in the sand” (via Atlas Obscura). Coupled with the fact that it’s also unknown how many other containers containing the lasagna loving cat may still be lost amongst the cliffs, the environmental impact the phones are having is clearly no laughing matter.

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