Over the last few week’s I have been following a Facebook Page about Lego lost at sea and the places that it has washed ashore. The Lego pieces were being carried by the Tokyo Express, which was hit by a huge wave, washing 62 containers overboard, 20 miles off the Cornish coast in 1997 – 18 years ago. This resulted in nearly 5 million Lego pieces, that were being shipped to New York, falling into the sea! Ironically the pieces that were lost at sea were mainly of a sea theme – such things as oars, air tanks and scuba gear (97,500), octopus (4,200), life rafts, flippers (418,000), ships rigging (26,400), life preservers (26,600)… along with 33,000 dragons, 353,000 daisys, plus some other bits and pieces of Lego. Now these pieces have slowly been coming ashore at different places across the world and there have been recent finds (i.e. as at the beginning of March 2015) in France, the Channel Islands, Netherlands, the USA, as well as along the coast of Cornwall. There has even been a report of a flipper, believed to have been from the Tokyo Express, found in Melbourne!
What fascinates me is the extent to which these pieces could travel the World and that fact that sunken objects don’t always stay at the bottom of the sea. Apparently it can take 3 years for debris to cross the Atlantic from Lands End to Florida – 3 years – so imagine the adventures these pieces can have in the 18 years that they have been out there floating on the surface of the oceans! They could have travelled 62,000 miles, gone round the World and be on any beach, anywhere; alot may never wash ashore and be found.
The currents of the oceans cannot be seen, however they are there and do a good job at being the engine of the Earth’s entire climate. They also, unfortunately in the case of products created by humans, move flotsam around the planet. What goes into the sea in one place, can end up at another place causing pollution and issues for wildlife, not only where it went into the sea, or on its journey, but at its destination too. That is some scale of pollution when you think of the miles these Lego pieces could have potentially travelled. They may look innocent little items in their ones and twos, I just wonder how many of these pieces have been swallowed by the marine life, or animals that live on the land where they are washed ashore. Really when you think about it 5 million pieces of Lego may be fun for beachcombers when it drifts ashore, and yes I would love to find a piece, however it can be really catastrophic to the wildlife that encounter it during its travels…
…And then there is the story of the rubber ducks. These fellas were destined for bathtubs and the excited hands of children playing with them, and what they got was the adventure of their lifetime! (which is a long time for plastics). They went along with their friends – blue turtles, green frogs, and red beavers (a total of 29,000 of these plastic toys) – to a party out at sea. These bright little chappies (which are almost white now after 23 years in the oceans) fell overboard from a container ship, the Ever Laurel, travelling in the Pacific Ocean to America on a stormy night in January 1992. Since then they have been having quite an adventure between them – it is estimated that 10,000 drifted North up the West Coast of America, over the top of Canada, Alaska and Greenland, coming back down South between Iceland and the UK, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the East coast of America, before recrossing the Atlantic and heading for British shores That’s if they weren’t washed ashore in the meantime, or eaten by a whale!
Where did the other 19,000 go – they went on their jollies heading South – some went towards Australia and Indonesia, the rest crossed the Pacific Ocean to go and party in South America.
Rubber duckies and their friends have been to places like Hawaii, negotiated the icebergs in the North Atlantic where Titanic sank (this was in 2001!), and have even been trapped in the Arctic pack ice for years, moving just a mile day in the ice until they popped out the other side of the frozen waters of the Arctic into the North Atlantic Ocean! At least one has been found on a beach in Scotland.
These little fellas are easier to spot than the Lego due to their size, and they have become invaluable to science over the years since they went for their first and very long swim. Researchers have been able to track the plastic toys from sightings and where they come ashore, enabling them to chart the great ocean currents. There is a ‘Gyre’ (constantly circulating current) which runs between Japan, South Alaska, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands – from tracking rubber duckies and friends, scientists now know that it takes 3 years to do a circuit of this ‘Gyre’. There are 11 ‘Gyres’ on the planet that move the water around the oceans and understanding them is highly important for predicting climate change and its effect on the marine environment.
Their extraordinary journey has been immortalised in a book titled Moby-Duck (Donovan Hohn), which chronicles their amazing journey and the ocean currents, and also highlights the threat to the marine environment of the vast number of shipping containers that are lost to the sea.
Around 5 million cargo containers are shipped round the World every day, of which it is estimated that 10,000 are lost at sea every year – 2,680 containers were reported lost at sea in 2014. Some of these containers sink and will corrode at the bottom of the ocean until their contents, if they can float, are set free; or they burst open releasing their contents into the ocean almost immediately. Both ways there is a threat to the marine environment, and to the wildlife who eat the contents of these containers, especially as they break down into smaller pieces to litter the water (leaving a layer of plastic and chemical scum on the surface of the ocean), and to get washed up on beaches to mix in with the sand forever.
This type of pollution is not the greatest danger, however it is one of the most visible ones. It is also very heartbreaking when it can cause the death of an animal, such as a Sperm Whale that died of intestinal blockage on Spain’s South coast – its stomach contents revealed just how much of this pollution it had sucked in whilst feeding, the poor thing had swallowed 59 different plastic items weighing over 37 pounds including:
- Transparent sheeting used to build greenhouses – this was the main content
- Plastic bags
- Nine meters of rope
- Two stretches of hose pipe
- Two small flower pots
- A plastic spray canister
Whales are not the only marine life to be affected by ingesting plastics and other man-made rubbish that gets into the World’s oceans. It is estimated that 1 million birds die each year along with 100,000 other marine animals. That is a huge number of animals that die an unpleasant death due to plastic! Albatrosses have even been found with plastic lighters in their stomachs. Joking aside about the rubber duckies and friends, and the Lego pieces, both stories bring to the fore the danger that plastic products in our oceans pose for the fabulous wildlife that can be found there.
Footnote: I started writing this blog as it fascinated me about how long these items had been in the oceans and where they had washed up – plus the rubber duckies and friends were a cute little story. However, the more I looked into the stories behind these two containers that were lost, the more I became focused on the environmental impact that plastics in our oceans have on marine life. Living near the sea it always grieves me to see litter on the beach (not that I go to the beach often these days due to my disability) and I have picked it up and disposed of it. Such litter as plastic bags, balls, cans, bottles, fishing line (always a big bug bear), toys, tyres, rope – you name it, everything really can end up on a beach if it is lost at sea, or just left on the beach to drift away on the tide. All it takes is care by each and every one of us to ensure we leave no litter behind to end up in the sea. I know accidents happen – I have thrown a ball for the dog out into the water and it has disappeared before the dog got to it, and you can’t help a wave washing over the deck of a container ship. However steps should be taken to find a way to prevent containers falling over the side of a ship when hit by large waves, or even a ball be invented that will biodegrade safely and quickly if it is lost – or throw a stick for the dog instead! One of the simplest steps everyone can take is to ensure rubbish is disposed of properly and you don’t leave it behind when you go home – the question I would ask is “would you leave your rubbish in the middle of your living room floor?”, no I don’t think so, so please don’t leave your rubbish on the beach, or wherever else you are.
References: Mail Online - Rubber Ducks BBC News - Lego Pieces The Independent - Lost at sea Moby Duck - Review Real News 24 - Whales with stomachs full of plastics Explore Planet Blog