It’s February 1997 and a wild, wintry night. Colossal swells are crashing against The Tokio Express, a cargo ship passing 20 miles off Land’s End. Suddenly, one ferocious wave sweeps 62 containers overboard, scattering 5 million pieces of Lego into the Atlantic.
This is the story at the heart of author Tracey Williams’ book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea – and which forms the backbone of the Royal Cornwall Museum’s summer exhibition, recently extended to run until November.
Because despite being lost to the Atlantic decades ago, hundreds of Lego blocks and characters from the accident continue to wash up on beaches to this day, Watergate Bay included. To add to the intrigue and magic of the story, much of the Lego that was lost took its inspiration from the very environment it was cast into. Tiny scuba tanks, little yellow life rafts and seaweed strands (to name but a few) found a new home in the big blue before being churned and carried by ocean swells to shorelines across the county and beyond.
The treasure hunters
26 years on, the search for these Lego treasures has become an obsession for many. Living by the tides, a network of beachcombers sift their way through freshly replenished Cornish wrack lines. The elusive green dragon is known as the rarest piece to find with 33,000 thrown overboard, yet only a handful recovered
Perranporth has become a hotspot for washed up witches’ brooms and an abundance of rare black octopuses have snuck up onto shingle and sand around the Lizard. Watergate Bay itself, with its long golden stretches and expansive tideline, is a favourite for Lego finders who can often be spotted peeking under rocks, lifting up seaweed clumps, or poking about in the sand.
And it’s not just the local coastline with a Lego tale to tell. The lost cargo has captured the imaginations and eagle-eyes of treasure hunters worldwide. Its discovery on distant shores illustrates the power and flow of the ocean’s currents, with dedicated seekers reporting their finds from the most far flung places. On Port Phillip beach in Melbourne, Australia, a tiny, blue diver's flipper was picked up and identified as part of the cargo, while at the western end of Galveston Island, Texas, USA, a black octopus washed up with the tide.
The woman at the helm
Returning daily to the sea shore seeking fresh finds, Tracey Williams – the inspiration behind Adrift – is a fanatical plastic collector. Captivated by the worlds the material’s appearance on the shoreline reveals, she doesn’t just pick up Lego, but accumulates and cleans away a vast array of plastic products left by the receding waves.
Tracey arranges her discoveries into colourful collages. An old toothbrush. A battered toy soldier. A Smarties lid. Long forgotten artifacts that have lived another life in a watery underworld. One collage tells us how long plastic lasts, how far it travels and what happens to it as it breaks down. She insists her work is not art – that it is not meant to be beautiful. Building a passionate community on Twitter @legolostatsea, Tracey aims instead to bring awareness to the plastic pollution problem. “Sometimes, when I stare out to sea, I find it hard to believe there is so much plastic out there,” she recently explained to Extinction Rebellion. “When I stand on the clifftops in north Cornwall and gaze into the distance, it all looks so clean, so perfect. Sparkling blue seas, white-capped waves, sea pinks carpeting the cliffs. Pristine, beautiful. And then you look at a beach below and it’s covered in plastic – it’s such a contrast.”
A plastic underworld
The problem with plastic is that it doesn’t break down over time, it breaks up. When plastic waste enters the ocean it slowly erodes to become microplastics, super-fine grains that can’t be seen or removed, and so are unwittingly consumed by fish and sealife, killing many of them and disrupting the sea’s ecosystems, which are responsible for keeping the world’s most vital carbon sink working. The UK produces over 5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year and 5.25 trillion macro and microplastics may now be floating in the open ocean. Sobering statistics, taking their toll with devastating effects.
Art on a mission
Filled with Tracey Williams’ images and words, the Royal Cornwall Museum exhibition explores the romance and reality of Lego lost at sea, encouraging visitors to consider what every piece of plastic tells us about the ocean, its currents and its pollution – as well as what we can do about it.
And it’s not only the Lego in the exhibition that carries this powerful message. As part of Adrift, you’ll also find environmental artist Rob Arnold’s sea-sourced sculptures. Made from microplastics washed up on Cornish shores, his oversized physical forms show the sheer scale of the plastic problem we’re facing, with the hope of triggering the essential conversations and actions that could lead to change
Clearing up the Bay
Ready to get out there? Big tides, wild storms and strong onshore winds are when plastic pieces will most likely wash up at Watergate Bay. Read our guide to the tides by Peter Geall then take a bag, some friends and an hour or two, to collect as much litter as you can. Tackle plastic waste head on and become a member of the community cleaning up Watergate Bay.
Adrift: Lost at Sea
Runs until 23 November at The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro
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