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Beachcombers collect shipwrecked Lego

Lego octopuses and dragons have been washing up on a beach in Cornwall. An intrepid beachcomber is helping to document the ongoing discoveries.

Lego octopus
This prized Lego octopus washed up on a beach.Tracey Williams/Lego Lost At Sea

There's treasure to be found along the coast of Cornwall and it has nothing to do with pirates (at least not human ones). Back in 1997, a massive wave blasted into a container ship named the Tokio Express. The water sloshed over, dragging 62 containers down into the sea. Among the goods lost were almost 5 million Lego pieces.

Tracey Williams, a writer and beachcomber, runs the Lego Lost At Sea Facebook page, an online community where beach-going Lego hunters can share their triumphant discoveries. Williams began to find pieces from the Tokio Express shipment in the late '90s in South Devon, England. She moved to Cornwall and continued to collect little plastic daisies, witches' brooms, diver flippers, and spear guns.

"I'm always intrigued by what washes up. Everything has a story behind it. I don't just beachcomb, I clean the beach too. Beach cleaners often say that finding a bit of Lego is a reward for cleaning the beach," Williams tells Crave.

It was just a coincidence that many of the shipwrecked pieces have a nautical theme. Williams and other Lego searchers have been able to match the pieces they've found up with information from the ship's cargo manifest. "The interesting thing about the manifest is that there are many items on it that we haven't yet found. Maybe they're still in crates at the bottom of the ocean!" says Williams.

Williams most-prized find is a Lego octopus, a charming bug-eyed figure with curling tentacles. Dragons, however, are particularly sought after, a sort of Holy Grail of washed-up Lego pieces. "There's something a bit magical about finding a tiny dragon on the strandline," says Williams.

Many of the sea-tossed Lego bits are still serviceable. "Most of the Lego is in pretty good condition when we pick it up. Some has oil or tar on it. Very occasionally pieces are broken, such as the spear guns or the pirate ship rigging," says Williams.

While the Lego treasures that still wash up on beaches from Cornwall to Ireland add a bit of mysticism to the beachcombing experience, they're also a reminder of the lingering impact of cargo accidents in the oceans. "Although the Lego is fun to find, it's shocking how many cargo spills there are every year. We also pick up IV saline drip bags, lighters and toothbrushes, all from cargo spills," says Williams.

Lego treasure hunters looking to scour the beach for the finds may have better luck in the winter, when more pieces tend to roll in. An Australian beachcomber recently found a Lego flipper, leading to speculation that the Tokio Express spill could have reached all the way to Melbourne. Considering the fickleness of ocean movements and the longevity of plastic, the lost Legos could very well turn up all over the world for decades to come.

Lego beach ID guide
Tracey Williams created this handy guide to washed-up Lego pieces.Tracey Williams/Lego Lost At Sea