For the past 17 years thousands of LEGO bricks have been washing up on the shores of Cornwall, Devon, and Wales in a mysterious phenomenon that has left locals scratching their heads. As cute and collectible as the pieces are, they can teach us a lot about ocean currents and the longevity of plastic flotsam and jetsam at sea. Read on to learn where all these plastic bits and pieces came from - and why it's so important to protect our oceans from plastic pollution.
In 1997, a massive wave hit the container ship Tokio Express 20 miles off the coast of Cornwall, sending 62 shipping containers overboard. One of them held nearly five million pieces of LEGO. Soon the pieces managed to escape the container and they have been washing up on the shores ever since.
Writer and beachcomber Tracey Williams first began to discover LEGO bricks from the Tokio Express on the shores near her home in South Devon not long after the cargo was lost. When she moved to Cornwall the pieces were there too. Beachcombers began to get quite competitive with their hauls, as some of the designs (most notably the octopus and the dragon) were far more rare than others. Williams was recently given a cargo manifest for the ship, which shows how many pieces of each design were lost. Ironically, it turns out that most of the LEGO was sea themed so, for example, 97,500 scuba tanks, 54,000 pieces of seagrass and 92,000 pirate cutlasses went down. Some of the pieces were too heavy to be likely to float, but around 3.2 million pieces could have been caught and transported by the currents.
In 2013, Williams launched a Facebook page, Lego Lost at Sea, to help keep track of the salvaged pieces. She knew that it was significant that pieces were still turning up after 17 years afloat. As she told NPR: “I thought it would be quite interesting, from a scientific point of view, to monitor where it was all turning up, what was turning up and in what quantities and who found it.” Technically, all the LEGO should be reported to the Receiver of the Wreck, since it is lost cargo, so the Facebook page also provides a way to consolidate findings. But it is the range of discoveries that could provide the most insight.
While unconfirmed reports have come in from as far away as Australia, the flotsam still washes up almost daily on Cornish beaches. A trawler fisherman also recently brought a small haul of heavier pieces to the surface while working 25 miles off the Cornish coast. According to oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has followed the story since the containers went overboard and obtained the original cargo manifest, the pieces could potentially have traveled 64,000 miles over the years. Since most pieces that wash up are still in excellent condition, verifying finds further afield will help track ocean currents. Because of the ship’s manifest, it is quite easy to confirm whether your LEGO beachcombing treasure is part of the story. Go to the Lego Lost at Sea Facebook page for more details.
Photos by Tracey Williams/Lego Lost at Sea