In 1997, the coast of Cornwall was invaded by an unlikely armada. Thousands of octopuses armed with cutlasses and spear guns threw themselves onto the beach. In their wake followed dragons sporting flippers and scuba tanks. Fortunately for the Cornish people, these invaders could be held in the palm of your hand. What was going on?
In Adrift, writer and beachcomber Tracey Williams tells the story of an unlikely cargo spill that came to litter England’s beaches. A beautifully presented book, it manages to entertain without making light of the very serious problem of plastic pollution.
The story starts with the cargo ship Tokio Express en route from the Netherlands to North America. On February 13th, 1997, caught in stormy weather some 20 miles off Land’s End, the ship was hit by a rogue wave that toppled sixty-two containers overboard. One of these carried nearly 4.8 million Lego pieces, much of them sea-themed. We do not know whether it burst open and spilt its contents or sank to the seabed and started leaking parts; the container in question has never been located. But not long after, people started finding Lego washed up on the beaches and do so to this day*.
For beachcombers, the spill provided the thrill of hunting for rare pieces. Particularly sought after were the 4,200 octopuses, 33,427 black dragons, and only 514 green dragons now adrift. But, quirky as this story may be, there is no getting away from the fact that it was also an environmental disaster that spilt millions of small pieces of colourful plastic into our oceans. Williams thus has the difficult task to balance the different sides to this story. And she does so admirably.
“For beachcombers, the spill provided the thrill of hunting for rare pieces. [but] there is no getting away from the fact that it was also an environmental disaster.”
Not surprisingly given Williams’s passion, beachcombing is the strongest-developed theme in Adrift. Next to Lego, she has built up a growing collection of both mundane and unusual items: food packaging, fishing gear, toys, toothbrushes, printer cartridges, car parts, sneakers, conglomerates of burnt plastic… the list is endless. Williams has made themed photomontages, some of which are a history of consumer goods in a single picture. Overall, the visual presentation of this book is outstanding, with numerous photos from a large number of contributors, and atmospheric watercolour illustrations and maps by Felicity Price-Smith.
The book is also particularly strong on the Lego story. Full disclosure here: Lego was the toy of my childhood and I have retained a strong—some would say unhealthy—interest in it later in life. The Lego community, at times a rather passionate bunch, can breathe a collective sigh of relief; Williams avoids that humbug of fans: “legos”. She mentions the themes and sets these parts belonged to and includes an exact breakdown of all the parts that were in the container, based on a detailed shipping manifest the LEGO Group provided at the time. This raises interesting questions. What is the lifespan of Lego at sea? Why have some parts never been picked up by beachcombers? Are they still lurking on the bottom of the sea? Dragon bodies were readily found, but the arms, tails, upper jaws, and wings were not. She speaks of AFOLs and BURPs, and even includes an interview with LEGO’s vice-president for environmental responsibility. One detail stood out for me. She mentions how the LEGO Group sent a box with samples of all parts to an oceanographer. Some of the paper labels in this box got mixed up and he was left to puzzle out what part numbers on the shipping manifest corresponded to what parts. But do parts not have identification numbers moulded on them in tiny print? Though not mentioned in the book, Williams clarified later in a message to me that the shipping manifest numbers differed from the part numbers. That is probably way more nerdy detail than you wanted to know…
“Though Williams enjoys beachcombing, she is also mortified by the amount of waste that ends up in the oceans. Without having to resort to heavy-handedness, this is where her text and images combine powerfully.”
The more important topic tackled is that of plastic pollution. The scale of the problem is now such that, next to regular beachcombing guides, there is even one dedicated to marine debris. Though Williams enjoys beachcombing, she is also mortified by the amount of waste that ends up in the oceans. Without having to resort to heavy-handedness, this is where her text and images combine powerfully. The age of some plastic that washes up, such as 60-year-old lids of Smarties tubes. A visual timeline of cereal packet toys reconstructed from beach finds. A photo of a dogfish with a Lego doorframe wedged around its body. Or the huge number of containers lost at sea: 1,382 on average over the last 12 years, but more than 3,000 in four months in 2020–2021. It is these kinds of unembellished observations that will make you queasy. Two passages stood out in particular. The invention of the humble container transformed the industry and made shipping anything affordable and easy, with ships growing ever larger. “As Rose George says in her book, Deep Sea and Foreign Going, 90 per cent of everything we wear, we eat, we consume is brought to us by these huge floating warehouses” (p. 111). And then, in 2021, Williams picked up over 400 colourful beach toys from two Cornish beaches. “Many had been shipped halfway round the world, only to break the first time they were used” (p. 147). What I missed was a short discussion of how governments and businesses, scientists, and individuals can or are already trying to address plastic pollution.
A final strand to this story is the science that comes out of these accidents. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer contributes a short vignette on his research on previous spills of sneakers and bath toys (the subject of not one but two delightful books). These are, in a way, accidental experiments and careful tracking of where flotsam washes up can teach us more about ocean currents. What I missed here was a bit more about oceanic gyres and the discovery of the plastic garbage patches.
Adrift is a beautifully presented book that makes for easy reading: the short sections and many vignettes allow you to dip in at your leisure. The balance achieved here is remarkable. Williams entertains with her story of the Lego lost at sea without making light of the environmental pollution caused by plastic.
* The story makes for a popular news item. Mario Cacciottolo, the journalist who reported it for the BBC in 2014, contributes a short vignette to the book.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: