The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea

In 1997, nearly five million pieces of Lego spilled into the ocean from a container ship hit by a rogue wave, washing up on the beaches of Cornwall. Tracey Williams has been collecting and writing about them ever since.

Located on England’s rugged southwestern tip, Cornwall is a peninsula of moorland and beaches lined with picturesque harbour villages, towering cliffs, and seaside resorts. It is one of the most popular holiday spots in the UK, and, for the past decade, it has been the place that Tracey Williams calls home. She moved there to be closer to family but shortly after her arrival she discovered something unexpected and life-changing — Lego. More specifically, Lego that was washing up on the shore day after day, seemingly without end. And in a darkly ironic twist, much of this debris turned out to be ocean-themed: octopuses, seagrass, spear guns, life rafts, scuba tanks, pirate hats, cutlasses, and flippers.

This unusual journey of discovery has led to Tracey becoming a passionate advocate for the oceans, making people aware of the dangers of plastics and the need to protect our marine environments for the future. After many years of collecting and researching she has just completed a forthcoming book on the subject, Adrift: The Curious Tale of Lego Lost at Sea, which is an archeological tale that has one foot in the past and one in the future. Here she shares her history with Cornwall and her encounter with this colossal amount of flotsam.

Beachcomber and author Tracey Williams

What are your earliest memories of the sea?

Family holidays on the north coast of Cornwall back in the ’60s. Every year we’d meet up with cousins at an old seaside house. We’d spend our days flying kites, rock pooling, running through the waves. Getting caught in quicksand, exploring a church that had been buried in the sand for 300 years, beachcombing for shells and sea glass, picnics on the beach with egg sandwiches, and midnight feasts with tins of my grandmother’s home-made cakes. Skimboarding, sunburn, and calamine lotion. Then about 40 years ago my parents moved to an old house perched high on a cliff in the neighbouring county of Devon. I’ve spent a great deal of time there over the years staring out to sea, lying in bed listening to the waves crash on the rocks below, scouring the beaches, and hunting for glowworms in the clifftop garden.

When did you move to Cornwall permanently? 

In 2010. I moved to the north coast of Cornwall to be closer to family. My daughter was already living here and I wanted to be nearer my father as he became increasingly frail.

How would you describe the place to someone who has never been there? 

I live on the wild north coast of Cornwall, which is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic. The south coast is gentler. In the guidebooks, you’ll read about Cornwall’s dramatic coastline, windswept beaches, towering cliffs, crashing waves, cathedral-like caverns, subterranean tunnels, remote moors, rocky outcrops, ancient settlements, sacred landscapes, vast dune systems, the ever-changing sea, and the old fishing villages. Much of Cornwall is dominated by its granite outcrops, which run from Bodmin Moor to Land’s End. Its slates were laid down during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, from about 400,000 million years ago. Cornish culture and traditions include farming and fishing, mining, streaming for tin, the Cornish language, and Cornish hedges, which are stone-faced earth hedgebanks with bushes or trees growing along the top. 

Land’s End promontory, Cornwall

The Tokio Express container ship on Sydney Harbour, 1976

What is the story of the Tokio Express cargo ship disaster and how did this event begin to intersect with your life?

On 13th February 1997, the vessel was hit by a rogue wave 20 miles off Land’s End, the most south-westerly point of mainland Britain. As a result, 62 containers plummeted into the ocean. Soon after the spill, we started to find thousands of pieces of Lego on the beaches below our house on the cliffs in South Devon.

We discovered all these tiny sea-themed pieces: divers’ flippers, cutlasses, miniature life jackets, scuba tanks, seagrass … occasionally a dragon or an octopus. At the time we weren’t sure where it was all coming from, we just knew they were from a cargo spill. There was so much of it. It wasn’t until later that I heard about the Tokio Express.

You have been documenting your finds on Instagram and Twitter for some time now, and it would appear that your focus has gone beyond the phenomenon of this cargo wreck and onto the environmental impact of plastic in general. Was this something that you were passionate about beforehand or has it developed through this project? 

No, it developed through the project. To start with, searching for Lego began as a bit of fun, a treasure hunt with my children. At weekends and during summer holidays we’d scour the beaches to see what had washed up. Over the years I more or less forgot about the Lego. My children were older, we were living inland, a long way from the sea, and our trips to the beach became less frequent. When I moved to Cornwall I found a piece of Lego from the spill on my very first trip back to the beach. 13 years on and it was still washing up. I was amazed. But of course, there wasn’t just Lego. There was so much plastic. And I just started recording it.

What are some of the facts and figures that you’ve become aware of through the project? 

The number of black Lego dragons that fell into the ocean from the Tokio Express amounts to nearly 34,000. There were 4,200 octopuses. The sheer volumes of plastic that enter the ocean every year is between 8 and 13 million tonnes according to the Marine Conservation Society, a figure that is expected to increase to 29 million by the year by 2040. The numbers are mind-blowing.

You’ve amassed quite a collection now. How do you house everything, and are there any objects which you have collected that are of strong personal value to you?

I keep the Lego and the finds that fascinate me but don’t keep it all — there is far too much. I try and ‘rehome’ as much as I can. I keep all the tiny toy animals we find. Some are quite old, given away in cereal packets in the ’50s and ’60s. They take me back to my childhood. My sister had a toy farm in the ’60s and every time I find a tiny plastic pig or chicken washed up I remember her lying on the bedroom floor, surrounded by miniature farm animals — ducks, chickens, and horses. The toy soldiers intrigue me too. Again, some are quite old, dating back to the ’50s and ’60s. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a child playing with them on the beach but we find hundreds. One particularly intriguing find was a 100-year-old block of gutta-percha from a shipwreck that took me on a journey through 19th century Java. I’d like to put on a display of the Lego one day. Some of the finds are already in museums — for example, the Tjipetir blocks — but I’m not sure how interested people would be in all my other finds!

Your Lego Lost at Sea project has grown since you started collecting to now includes submissions from all over the world. What are some of the most interesting objects and stories from contributors?

I love the stories behind the Lego. The grandmother who took up dragon hunting in her ’80s, the vast distances people travel to hunt — from the US, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and beyond. The strange objects the fishermen trawl up in their nets, including Lego. Most of the Lego has been found by people who pick up plastic from beaches every day. Unsung heroes.

You’ve recently completed a book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea. Beyond a chronicle of this project, what did you want to explore or examine in writing this?

It’s a voyage into the changing nature of beachcombing — how searching for Lego with my children ultimately opened my eyes to the amount of plastic in the ocean. The book will include pictures of all the different Lego bricks originally in the shipping container. Beachcombers have only found some of the pieces, there’s far more to be discovered. The book also covers how far the Lego has drifted over the years and what has happened to it over time. Other beachcombing finds are featured too.

Sea-themed Lego collected by Tracey Williams

It’s now over 20 years since the wreck of the Tokio Express – is there any way to estimate how much plastic remains, still to wash up? 

It’s impossible to say. There are probably still millions of pieces of Lego out there – some buried in dunes and sandbanks, others lying at the bottom of the sea, perhaps buried in sand and sediments. The fishermen still haul Lego bricks up in their nets. It will probably be turning up for hundreds of years to come.

What sort of outlook for the future has this project given you, particularly in relation to how people engage with the sea? 

While it started as a harmless treasure hunt with my children, a way to pass the time on vacation, ultimately it has made me realise how much plastic is in the sea and sand. I think the Lego story has made many of us aware of the longevity of plastic.

Enjoy the story? Leave a tip!

Categorized as The Drift
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.