A container filled with millions of Lego pieces fell into the sea off Cornwall in 1997. But instead of remaining at the bottom of the ocean, they are still washing up on Cornish beaches today – offering an insight into the mysterious world of oceans and tides.
On 13th February 1997 the container ship Tokio Express was hit by a wave described by its captain as a “once in a 100-year phenomenon”, tilting the ship 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back.
As a result, 62 containers were lost overboard about 20 miles off Land’s End – and one of them was filled with nearly 4.8m pieces of Lego, bound for New York.
No-one knows exactly what happened next, or even what was in the other 61 containers, but shortly after that some of those Lego pieces began washing up in both the north and south coasts of Cornwall. They’re still coming in today.
A quirk of fate meant many of the Lego items were nautical-themed, so locals and tourists alike started finding miniature cutlasses, flippers, spear guns, seagrass and scuba gear as well as the dragons and the daisies.
US oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has tracked the story of the Lego since it was spilled. “The mystery is where they’ve ended up. After 17 years they’ve only been definitely reported off the coast of Cornwall,” he says.
It takes three years for sea debris to cross the Atlantic ocean, from Land’s End to Florida. Undoubtedly some Lego has crossed and it’s most likely some has gone around the world. But there isn’t any proof that it has arrived as yet.
“I go to beachcombing events in Florida and they show me Lego – but it’s the wrong kind. It’s all local stuff kids have left behind.”
Since 1997, those pieces could have drifted 62,000 miles, he says. It’s 24,000 miles around the equator, meaning they could be on any beach on earth. Theoretically, the pieces of Lego could keep going around the ocean for centuries.
“The most profound lesson I’ve learned from the Lego story is that things that go to the bottom of the sea don’t always stay there,” Ebbesmeyer adds. The incident is a perfect example of how even when inside a steel container, sunken items don’t stay sunken. They can be carried around the world, seemingly randomly, but subject to the planet’s currents and tides.
“Tracking currents is like tracking ghosts – you can’t see them. You can only see where flotsam started and where it ended up.