Lego lost at sea

In 1997, a rogue wave hit the container ship Tokio Express 20 miles off Land’s End, sending 62 bus-sized containers overboard. One held five million pieces of Lego, many of them sea-themed. Soon, beachcombers were finding plastic dragons and octopuses washing up on the shores of Cornwall and Devon, along with tiny flippers, scuba tanks and life preservers. Oceanographers believe the Lego pieces have floated all over the world....

Devon-based Beachcomber Tracey Williams is recording the journey of the sea-bound Lego on the ‘Lego Lost At Sea’ Facebook page, where finders share pictures and memories of the epic Lego spill. We chatted to Tracey about her colourful quest and the sobering realities of marine debris...

When the spill happened in 1997, did you have any idea it would impact you personally in such a way? 

No. At the time I was just intrigued by all the Lego washing up on the beaches around our family home in south Devon. Tiny flippers, cutlasses, scuba tanks, life preservers, spear guns, seagrass and very occasionally a Lego dragon or an octopus. We knew it must be from a cargo spill. My children would go down to the beach with their tiny plastic buckets and fill them with ‘treasure’. We stored it all in my father’s garden shed, which was tethered to the clifftop by guy ropes to stop it blowing away in storms. 

How much of an impact has the spill had on the beaches? 

Nearly five million pieces of Lego is obviously a significant amount but so much debris washes up all the time – the Lego is but a drop in the ocean! Although the Lego used to wash up intact it’s gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Maybe it will eventually be unrecognisable. Micro plastic pollution is a huge issue. 

How far and wide across the globe have these Lego pieces been found? 

We’ve had quite a few reports from the Netherlands – the Lego has been washing up there for years. A beachcomber in Texas recently found a Lego octopus and someone else in Maine, US, found one of the Lego life rafts. A beachgoer in Australia found a blue Lego flipper and we’ve spotted Lego spear guns in montages of beach finds posted online by beachcombers in California. In recent weeks we’ve also had reports from Portugal and France. Obviously it’s hard to tell from a single find whether it’s from the Tokio Express or just a random loss but oceanographers do believe that the Lego will have travelled all round the world by now. We tend to look at patterns, i.e., whether or not more than one item has washed up and if so whether they are pieces we recognize.

Do you have a favourite piece of Lego that you’ve found? 

It’s always fun to find a Lego dragon or an octopus. And I still love finding the teeny tiny cutlasses. They often wash up with the nurdles or mermaid’s tears – those tiny pellets of plastic that are the scourge of the oceans.  Because the cutlasses are so tiny they are really hard to spot.

Is there a piece you’re hoping to find? 

Yes – a green dragon. Only a few of those have been reported so far. I still remember the envy when our next door neighbour found one! 

Have you ever considered having a Bring-Your-Own Exhibition to show off the quirky pieces found ashore?  

Now that’s a really good idea! We have considered putting on a display. We’re writing a book about our project at the moment so once that’s finished we’ll think about an exhibition. 

We can see in some of the pictures posted online the amount of debris that is washed up on the beaches in the South. Do the Lego-searchers help out in clearing up the beaches? 

We’re part of a network of beach cleaners and originally set up the Lego Lost At Sea page so that between us we could record where the Lego was turning up and how much had been found. We knew other people were finding it too and thought it would be interesting to track how far it had travelled and who was finding what. After the BBC featured the page the number of followers shot up from 400 to over 50,000. We do encourage them to do a two-minute beach clean or a mini beach clean while they’re hunting. If everyone who visited the beach did the same we could make a huge difference.

What debris – aside from Lego – is being washed up onto these beaches? 

Where do I start! Discarded fishing gear, beach litter, food packaging, dirty nappies. Items from other cargo spills, such as shoes, clothes, syringes, lighters, intravenous drip bags, car parts, etc. Sewage related debris – tampon applicators, cotton bud sticks, lancets. I’m always amazed at the number of toothbrushes that wash up. Plastic bottles, bottle caps (beachcombers in Cornwall collected over 60,000 bottle tops for the Great Cornish Bottle Top Chain, an initiative organised by Rame Peninsula Beach Care). Much of the debris we pick up has come from cities and towns – dropped on the street and washed into storm drains, rivers and eventually the sea. Some of the litter we find has travelled thousands of miles – we get quite a bit from the US and Canada. Some of the marine litter is quite old. We’ve dated some of the toys we’ve found to the 1950s. 

Are there any elusive pieces that are on the ship’s manifesto that haven’t been found ashore yet? 

Yes.  As an example, we still haven’t found the dragons’ wings, arms, tails and fiery breath! Where are they? We do tend to find the same pieces time and time again but there are many more items on the inventory that we haven’t yet discovered. Not all the Lego floats though. We believe some may still be trapped in crates at the bottom of the ocean.    

Do you have any advice for would-be Lego-seekers? 

Do check the tide times before you head to the beach and wear protective gloves. We often find the Lego on the strandline, among the seaweed and micro plastic that washes up. Some of the smaller pieces, such as the Lego cutlasses and daisies are really hard to spot. We often find those when we are down on our hands and knees scooping up the nurdles. Searching by colour is another technique Lego hunters use. A friend recently found one of the elusive Lego dragons when she focused solely on picking up black plastic from the strandline. She would probably have never spotted the black dragon lurking in seaweed otherwise! 

Tracey was interviewed by Rosie Gailor.

A handy Lego ID guide for your beachcombing adventures

A handy Lego ID guide for your beachcombing adventures

To find out more about Lego Lost At Sea and to log your washed-up finds, visit the Lego Lost At Sea Facebook page.

This originally featured in print issue 4 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

Order print issue 4
10.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart

The Sea Gooseberry

In her photographic journal of Britain’s shores, Lisa Woollett encounters all manner of curious objects washed up along the strandline, from mermaid’s purses and shark’s teeth to the mysterious sea gooseberry

Images: Lisa Woollett

Images: Lisa Woollett

“Just ahead of me the gentle incoming tide pushes something transparent a little further up the beach, then leaves it stranded on the sand. It is small and jelly-like, a little collapsed, and I think at first it is a small moon jelly. I pick it up and it is barely there in my palm, transparent, almost weightless, and as it regains its form I realise what it is — a sea gooseberry, the first one I’ve ever found. 

They are not jellyfish, but unrelated ‘comb jellies’. Close-to I can see its near transparent ‘combs’, rows of cilia that beat rhythmically to propel it through the water. It is these that in life give comb jellies their striking beauty. As they beat, the cilia refract light, shimmering with iridescence so pulses of coloured light run the length of their transparent bodies. They are also said to be phosphorescent (or more correctly, bioluminescent) as other comb jellies are, shimmering with blue light after dark. 

Although seemingly fragile they are voracious predators and can eat up to 10 times their own body-weight a day, which often includes other sea gooseberries. Two long feathery tentacles act as sticky fishing nets and the ensnared prey is ‘reeled in’ to the comb jelly’s mouth. 

When I put this one in a nearby rockpool it slowly sinks and all but disappears. There is no movement, no shimmering light show. As with the jellyfish, soon after a sea gooseberry spawns, it dies, so this form is only found in the warmer months.”

This is an extract from Sea Journal, a beautiful and unusual book that brings together a year’s wanderings along Britain’s shores with stories of their natural history, geology and evolution – from ancient myth to current science – and the author’s striking photography.

Lisa Woollett grew up by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. After a degree in Psychology she studied Documentary Photography and from 1993 worked as a photographer. She lives in Cornwall and current work sells through galleries and exhibitions. zartbooks.co.uk

Cree bannock

Woodlore, the school of wilderness bushcraft founded by Ray Mears, share their recipe for a warming, energy-filled snack that's a perennial favourite of the outdoorsman

Bannock is a traditional Scottish bread

Bannock is a traditional Scottish bread

Every region has its own take on the standard method of cooking bannock. In Australia they bake it straight on fire embers; in the far North it is cooked in a frying pan. In North America, the dish was adopted by indigenous peoples after it was introduced by fur traders. To free up cooking equipment for other jobs, the Cree cooked their bannock skewered on a stick, which is the method we’ve used for this recipe: 

Ingredients (serves 3)

4 x handfuls of flour
2 x handfuls of milk powder
4 x teaspoons of baking powder
1 x handful of dried fruit
Sugar (to taste)
Water

Method

1. Put flour, milk powder, baking powder and sugar in a large bowl or pan. Stir with a wooden spoon, getting plenty of air into the mixture. Make a well in the centre and gradually add water, stirring into a stiff consistency.

2. Fold in the fruit, taking care not to force air from the dough.

3. Find a green, non-toxic stick about an inch in diameter (we use willow) and scrape it down to the bare wood and sharpen both ends. Heat the stick over the fire until scorching.

4. Form the dough into balls and skewer them, pushing the balls together. Push one end of the stick into the ground and lean it towards the embers – the bread at a height above the fire at which you can hold your hand no more than five seconds.

5. Turn the stick regularly to ensure even cooking until the bread is golden brown all over. Peel the bread off the stick and serve warm with butter and jam. 

Learn more cooking techniques and bushcraft skills on a Woodlore course; raymears.com.

You can read our guide to wild butchery and foraging for the Norwegian cloudberry in print issue four of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

10.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart

Swedish torch log

Ever tried to start a fire on wet ground? There aren’t enough curses in the dictionary. A Swedish torch log is the answer, providing all the fuel for the burn and a surface for resting your kettle on, while keeping the fire raised off the ground

A Swedish torch log burns for two to four hours

A Swedish torch log burns for two to four hours

Based on a centuries old idea, the Swedish torch log is becoming increasingly popular among bushcraft and outdoor enthusiasts as a low-impact alternative to gas stoves and an antidote to the frustrations of trying to start a campfire on wet ground.  

There is some conjecture over their origin but Swedish torches may have been used by soldiers of northern European states, fighting in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). The name is likely to have derived from the German words Schwedenfeuer or Schwedenfackel, which translate as Swedish Fire or Torch.

The great advantages of the Swedish torch log over a conventional campfire, are that the log provides all the fuel for combustion and for the duration of the burn – typically around 2-4 hours, depending on its size. The fire burns from the top, downwards (hence their other name 'log candle') and is always raised off the ground, which is very handy in cold, wet weather. The torch can also be used as a cooking stove, since its flat top provides a stable surface on which to rest a pan or kettle, exactly above where the flames and heat are most concentrated.

To make one, you'll need a well-seasoned log around 8 inches or more in length. Pine, larch or birch are ideal. Using a chainsaw, cut two or three slots across the diameter, down to 3/4 of the log's length. If you don't have a chainsaw you can use an axe to quarter the log then reassemble it using wooden spacers to keep the slots open. I like to attach a string handle to the log so I can carry it around easily (before it's lit, obviously!). Insert kindling into the slots and on top of the log, then light it. The gaps will allow air into the heart of the fledgling fire, which eventually becomes self sustaining as the log begins to burn from the core outwards.

Words and photo provided by Lewis Goldwater, a Herefordshire-based green woodworker. turnham-green-wood.co.uk

Originally featured in issue 4 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

Order print issue 4
10.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart

Words from the woods

Overgrown by the moss of time or languishing in the deep forest of obscurity, these sylvan words deserve another chance to emerge blinking into daylight

The Way Things Were, Ruth Allen/blueeggsandtea.com

The Way Things Were, Ruth Allen/blueeggsandtea.com

nemophilist

This rather sinister-sounding word has rarely been used for over 100 years. It describes someone with a fondness for the forest; a haunter of the woods. It originates from the 19th century and derives from the Greek words nemos meaning grove and philos meaning affection.

fyrhth

A Norse word to describe a sparse area of scrubland at the edge of a forest. In its modern form it becomes frith, hence Chapel-en-le-Frith – the Chapel in the woodland. Frith developed to‘thrift’,as inThriftWood in Croydon. Frith is also the name of the Sun God in Watership Down.

shaw

From the Old English sceaga – a word for copse or thicket – it also describes a strip of woodland forming the border of a field and bears relation to the North Frisian word skage, meaning the farthest edge of cultivated land. We of course know it as a popular surname today. 

foxfire

A term to describe the luminescent green glow emitted by decaying fungi, sometimes visible at night in forests. It was described by Pliny the Elder as an ‘Agaricke (fungus) that grows on trees and shines at night.’In folklore it is said to indicate the places where fairies gather for their nightly revels.

woodwose

Depicted in medieval folklore, the woodwose is the mythical hairy wild man of the woods. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa (man of the wood).Ted Hughes wrote a poem entitled Wodwo about a half-man,half- animal creature musing on its existence while wandering through a forest. 

Words: Brian Chapman. Originally published in issue 4 of Ernest Journal.

Order print issue 4
10.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart