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Millions of Shipwrecked Lego Pieces Wash Ashore in Cornwall, England
Millions of Shipwrecked Lego Pieces Wash Ashore in Cornwall, England
May 19, 2024 12:03 PM

It’s the best kind of treasure hunt: A pirate’s bounty that washes up piecemeal on the seashore, waiting for lucky beachcombers to stumble upon colorful gems in the sand.

Except that this loot is made up not of gold doubloons, but entirely of familiar bits of rainbow plastic.

For 17 years, Lego pieces have been washing up on the shores of Cornwall, England, mostly in nautical themes: There are spear guns, pirate-style cutlass swords, flippers, pieces of scuba gear and the rare and coveted octopus or dragon, according to Yahoo.com.

(MORE: Why Is 99 Percent of Ocean Trash Missing?)

It’s no big mystery where the popular kids' building parts originated. On February 5, 1997, New York-bound container ship the Tokio Express was nearly overturned by a rogue wave, tossing 62 containers into the sea about 20 miles off Land's End, the most westerly point in England, the BBC reports. One of the shipwrecked containers was brimming with nearly 5 million Lego pieces, which have been finding their way to Cornwall’s beaches ever since, as well as Devon, Ireland and Wales.

Tracey Williams, a local writer who runs a Facebook page that catalogues the discoveries, says that the plastic ‘pieces of eight’ still wash up daily. Just last week, a Lego scuba tank washed up in Perranporth in northern Cornwall. According to the Tokio’s Express’ cargo manifest, there were 97,500 tiny scuba tanks aboard the doomed vessel, along with millions of other miniscule gear.

Not surprisingly, it’s the more rare pieces of thevintage 'toy armada' that treasure hunters especially covet, according to the Washington Post.

"These days the holy grail is an octopus or a dragon. I only know of three octopuses being found, and one was by me, in a cave in Challaborough, Devon,” Williams told the BBC. “It's quite competitive. If you heard that your neighbor had found a green dragon, you'd want to go out and find one yourself."

As much of a delight the quest for one-in-a-million find is for beachcombers, the case of the sunken Lego bounty is also intriguing for scientists.

US oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who runs a website for beachcombers and has tracked the incident since it happened, says it’s a mystery why these particular types of Lego pieces have only washed up in the U.K. According to Ebbesmeyer, it would take roughly three years for sea debris (also known as flotsam) to travel from off the Cornwall coast to Florida. And until recently, few of the Lego pieces from theTokioExpress had surfaced anywhere else on the globe.

But the mystery may have a new twist: On July 18, 2014 a beach-goer in Australiafound a mini flipper washed up onPort Phillip Bay, Melbourne.

It remains to be seen if the newly found flipper is part of the Tokio Express bounty, but forEbbesmeyer, the find shows the difficulty of tracking ocean currents.

"Tracking currents is like tracking ghosts - you can't see them,” Ebbesmeyer told the BBC. “You can only see where flotsam started and where it ended up."

Though the strange treasure may be able to teach us something about ocean currents, the resilience of plastic in the oceans has environmental activists worried. After 17 years, the plastic plunder washes up looking nearly as good as the day the pieces were manufactured, if not a little sandy.

"If you look at the washed-up Lego, it looks perfect, like it's just come out of the box," Claire Wallerstein, head of a Cornwall beach care group, told the BBC. "Plastic in the sea is not going to just decompose and go away."

You can learn more about these finds HERE on Williams' Facebook page.

MORE ON WEATHER.COM: Lego Pieces Wash Ashore

South Devon

Lego octopus found in a cave in South Devon. (Photo: Facebook/Lego Lost at Sea)

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