A container filled with millions of Lego pieces fell into the sea near Cornwall in 1997. Today the tiny colourful toys still wash ashore. What started off as a treasure hunt for Lego ended up as a day doing marine archaeology.
After contacting British writer and beachcomber Tracey Williams I took a seven-hour bus trip to Newquay. Tracey invited me and my man to her home and told me all about her passion, marine archaeology. It all started when she found her first Lego-dragon in 1997 near her parent’s house in South Devon. Ever since, when she walks her dog on the beach, she picks up litter. In between the piles of garbage she keeps the interesting pieces such as the Lego.
Plastic grass-green algae
”Nearly five million bits of Lego fell into the sea when a huge wave hit the container ship ’Tokio Express’. Since the late 1990s I’ve found all kinds of Lego-pieces: little flowers, diving-gear, grass-green green algae, brown brooms and even three dragons. I must have over a thousand pieces by now. The one I’m most proud of is the octopus. They’re so rare. I’ve only heard of three people finding one, including myself.”
What happened to the cargo? Tracey rang Lego but didn’t get any information. They didn’t even give answers when the BBC contacted them. However, Tracey did get a hold of the cargo manifest. ”There’s still so much we haven’t found. On my Facebook page ’Lego lost at sea’ people all around the country and even in the rest of the world keep posting items of the Danish miniature toys they find.”
The beach clean
Perranporth beach. A beautiful two-mile-long stretch of golden sands. When I came down the sand hill, I was saddened to see that the golden sand beach was filled with debris. I had only been walking for five minutes and had already seen a crab-net, an industrial vacuum-cleaner (how did that ever end up here?) and loads of plastic bottles. ”In wintertime the sea washes up all kinds of plastic debris from all over the world. I’ve found shells from shotguns in Canada, ancient rubber plates from Thailand and crab trap tags from the US. The sad thing is that twice as much garbage probably sinks to the bottom of the sea. When spring comes quite some volunteers get together to clean the beaches. Yet, you have no idea to which degree it’s entwined with nature. “
“Let’s clean that beach,” she says. We each focused on one kind of rubbish: Tracey did the mystery blue bullets, Gregory the bottle caps and I gathered all sorts of unidentified small pieces of plastic. Of course, I also thoroughly looked for Lego! You can imagine my excitement when Tracey shouted that she’d found a small red Lego-flower. A few meters further away she found a little white one and even a diving bottle. We were already at the end of the beach, turning over rocks, when my man enthusiastically called me over and proudly presented me with a yellow rescue vest. It’s a really exciting thing to find that small a piece in between the piles of debris. We each filled a bag with litter. The more fascinating stuff, like the toy soldiers I found, we took home with us.
I’ve always been aware that our planet is covered in trash. But it wasn’t until Tracey took me to a beach clean-up that I realised just how much the plastic is entwined with nature! For instance, the beach is covered in nurdles, which are microplastic pellets that plastic is made from. They’re not only on the surface, but also layers deep into the sand! They are particularly dangerous to animals because they mistake them for eggs and eat them. The seagull’s carcass’s belly filled with tiny plastic pieces on the beach was living proof. It’s like the turtles in Australia – a lot of them mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. When they eat them they can’t dive for food anymore and die.
Sherlock Holmes on the shoreline
”Isn’t your house getting full with the debris you collect?” I ask. “First, I try to solve the mystery of where the litter is from. Some findings make you wonder how long they have been at sea, especially the toys. Like the ’flotsam army’ on Facebook for little toy soldiers that wash ashore. I found out that there was a law until the eighties that obligated the fabricants to indicate where they had been made. So when I found one with the Hong Kong-label I knew it must have been made before 1980. Also, marine archaeologists have a way of finding out how long the item has been floating around by shining light through plastic. But then again: Are they a group of random losses or another cargo spill? When I get my answers, I pass the debris on to schools to educate children. Or I give them to artists like Jo Artherton who makes carpets (see flotsam weaving) to raise awareness. All the plastics bottles go to be recycled. The most interesting findings, especially the toys, I keep.”
You too can find treasures!
Hearing about finding the Lego might be quite compelling, but don’t be mistaken, you have to be quite patient, look very thoroughly and even be a little lucky to find some. It’s way more interesting to pick up a bag, do a two-minute beach-clean and see for yourself what treasures you might find! (If saving the planet isn’t a reward in itself.)