High tide: why are cocaine bricks washing up on Sydney beaches?

<span>An increasing amount of cocaine is being found washed up on New South Wales beaches, including Freshwater and North Curl Curl in Sydney.</span><span>Photograph: Guardia di Finanza press office/AFP/Getty Images</span>
An increasing amount of cocaine is being found washed up on New South Wales beaches, including Freshwater and North Curl Curl in Sydney.Photograph: Guardia di Finanza press office/AFP/Getty Images

Five suspected cocaine blocks have been found on Sydney beaches, joining a mass that has washed ashore in New South Wales since December.

The five parcels were discovered early on Monday morning at Freshwater beach and North Curl Curl beach, and have been seized for forensic examination by officers from the Northern Beaches police area command. They have a street value of close to $1m.

In total, 256kg of cocaine has washed up on beaches along the NSW coast since 22 December, when the first suspicious package was discovered on Magenta beach. More packages popped up shortly afterwards, and NSW police organised crime squad launched an investigation into their origin. The cocaine blocks have various labels, such as Tesla, Zoe, and R-Z.

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The most recent discovery was made in early March 2024 on the mid-north coast, when a 1kg block of cocaine washed ashore at Nambucca Heads.

The cocaine had been in the ocean for no more than six weeks before washing ashore, the commander of the organised crime squad said.

“Our detectives have analysed tides as well as barnacle growth on the packages to determine the blocks were only in the water a short amount of time before washing ashore – no more than six weeks,” Det Supt Faux said.

So how does cocaine end up on beaches? A former detective investigating cocaine imports breaks down everything we need to know.

Why is there cocaine in the water?

There are a number of ways for cocaine bricks to end up on shorelines, Dr Vincent Hurley, Macquarie University department of security studies and criminology, says. He worked in the police force for 28 years – 20 years as a detective, five years investigating national or international cocaine importation.

Most global trade is carried out on cargo ships carrying tens of thousands of containers each. Any container with a hollow cavity, such as those carrying fruit or furniture, can also fit wrapped cocaine “and there is no way anyone would know”, Hurley explains. Cocaine can also be stored in the shell of the container.

It is not unusual for containers to fall overboard in transit. Loose cocaine in fallen containers is then carried by ocean current to shore.

Crime syndicates also attach containers of cocaine to the hulls of ships, using heavy duty chains and cables, Hurley says. “[Cargo] ships would not even notice the drag of a single container because they are just gigantic.”

Those containers can break in ocean currents, letting loose the cocaine stored inside.

The “mother-daughter transfer” is another technique that may see stray cocaine bricks fall into the sea. When cargo ships are docked at Wollongong and Newcastle ports, for example, “anyone could easily pull up” in recreational boats on the ship’s blind side to catch cocaine bricks sent overboard.

“If they lose a couple of bundles, they might not be overly concerned,” Hurley says.

Oceania is also considered “a bit of a drug highway for the importation of cocaine”, as ships often stop over in small island countries to transfer drugs onto different vessels, meaning loose cocaine bricks don’t have to float too far to reach Australia.

And over long weekends or summer holiday periods, more cocaine is imported (and therefore more is likely to be lost at sea) as it can be easily unloaded “without anyone raising an eyebrow”.

Is more cocaine coming to Australia?

Cocaine is grown in South America from the native coca plant, which has had a recent explosion in cultivation as it is more profitable for farmers to grow than other crops like coffee, Hurley says.

Australia is on the receiving end of this uptick in production.

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“We are the second-highest paying country per head in the world for cocaine,” Hurley explains. “The only one that surpasses us is the Middle East.”

On top of that, Australians have high disposable income, “even in this cost of living crisis”, he says. “So our consumption is highest in the world per head of population.”

Cocaine has become more accessible and more socially acceptable than other hard drugs. Once the drug of choice for “beautiful people, people that could afford it”, Hurley says now “it is the common person’s drug, because of the demand within Australia”.

“It doesn’t have the social image of being a dirty drug. The whole culture around the cocaine, the cutting of that with the credit card, rolling up the nose, that whole culture is far more palatable than seeing someone inject themselves in the arm.”