One Big Wave, and Millions of Lost Legos

Lego dragons Bigbury

Photos courtesy of Tracey Williams

On Feb. 13, 1997, about 20 miles off the coast of England, a massive wave hit the freighter Tokio Express, toppling 62 giant containers into the rough north Atlantic seas.

Trapped inside one of them: nearly 5 million Legos. Many floated to the surface. Carried by currents, they’re still being found on beaches around the world nearly two decades later. Others remain on the ocean floor. It’s not unusual for fishermen trawling the Atlantic to haul up tiny Legos.

The fact that so many of the pieces were nautical themed – sea dragons, pirate swords, sea grass and scuba gear, among others – has turned the Lego spill into one of the most famous and unusual marine debris incidents in recent maritime history.

In Newquay, a seaside town in England, writer and longtime beachcomber Tracey Williams started a Facebook page a few years ago – Legos Lost at Sea – that tracks the whereabouts of the lost Legos as they wash up onto beaches.

Williams recently spoke to the Beach Chair Scientist blog about her work, and you can hear more of what she has to say below. But she hopes to turn the public fascination, much of it generated from a recent BBC story on the spill, into a teaching moment about the harmful environmental impact of marine debris.

Lego octopus Terena

“Clearly, 5 million pieces of Legos spilling into the ocean isn’t good for the environment,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. After the BBC interviewed her about her site a while back, the publicity resulted in people contacting her with stories about beach-bound Legos around the world.

“It has connected beachcombers all around the world, which is fascinating,” Williams said.

She received one report of a Lego flipper found on an Australian beach. She’s also heard from the family of a woman who had scoured the beaches for Lego dragons as a hobby in her 80s, passing her finds along t0 younger generations.

“Obviously, marine debris is a big problem. But I think many children have been captivated by this whole Lego story … I think it reminds people of their childhood. It’s the whole issue of marine debris. Oceanographers are interested in how far it’s spread.”

Meanwhile, she also hears from fishermen who come across Lego pieces in their nets.

“Half of it sinks and half of it floats,” Williams said, referring to the sorts of Legos that fell off the Tokio Express. “So clearly, while we’re finding certain items washed up on our shores like the spear guns and the flippers, fishermen are actually finding other pieces like window frames and car chassis.”

While the lost Legos have made for fun beach combing and treasure hunts, there are bigger questions beneath the surface. If the contents of just one toppled shipping container can spread around the world for decades, what about far bigger and more dangerous spills that go unnoticed because they don’t happen to have Legos in them?

“There were 62 containers that fell off the Tokio Express back in 1997 and we only know about what  was in three of them,” Williams said.

“What’s in all of the others and when will that all wash ashore?”

You can listen to more of Williams and the story of the lost Legos here:

5 quick & simple DIY natural household products

DIYLast March I spent some time focusing on what we do in our communities that affect watersheds. Forgive me, but I’m just now getting around to sharing some quick and simple (repeat: simple, simple, simple!) household practices that are not only better for my local watershed, but also the growing family and I. Each of these products reduces our plastic impact and uses ingredients that are significantly less toxic than their commercial counterpart.

In addition to water, you only need at most three ingredients for each of these – all of which you can purchase from Amazon, Target, or Trader Joe’s.

Laundry detergent from Wellness Mama: All you need is pure castile soap, borax, and washing soda
Liquid hand soap from Thank Your Body: All you need is pure castile soap
Simple Homemade 3-in-1 Cleaner from Frugal Granola: All you need is white vinegar and lemon (or essential oils)
Vanilla Coconut Brown Sugar Scrub from Treehugger: All you need is coconut oil, brown sugar, and vanilla
Wipes (great for cleaning tile, counters, leather, and flooring) from Wellness Mama: All you need is liquid castile soap, 100% pure aloe vera, and witch hazel

Since castile soap shows up frequently on the ingredients lists, check out this post from Live Renewed on the many uses of castile soap. You’ll be amazed and smitten with Dr. Bronner!

For more ways to reduce your plastic impact, please make sure to check out and reference often (bookmark now!) anything from Beth Terry. I love her book and her blog, My Plastic Free Life.

In an effort to keep my life a little less crazy, I do try to find homemade household product recipes that use only a few common ingredients (read: three or less). Do you have any other great ideas worth sharing?

 

And that concludes my “We affect what goes in our watershed” week

This week I shared insight on the theme what we do in our daily lives affects our waterways. It’s particularly surprising to come to the realization that even though we might not live anywhere near a river, lake, or stream our daily actions have massive consequences on the waterways – and ultimately the ocean. It’s all interconnected. Remember “gas from our cars – not tankers or pipelines – is responsible for 92% of the petroleum spilled into the water”? The products we buy affect marine mammals. Plastic (i.e., marine debris) accumulates not just in the Pacific Ocean, but in the North Atlantic and possibly every sea on the planet. Fish are affected by the medication we take (not just that we dump down the drain!). Lastly, what we use on our lawns and gardens causes eutrophication – depleting waterways of oxygen and leading to the fish kills.

This weekend I am very grateful that my husband and neighbors will be helping me to label the storm drains in our neighborhood as a project for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District. I have a picture of a stack of 50 below. They look pretty sophisticated. Does your neighborhood have labeled storm drains? Share with me how effective you think they are and if they’re as interesting as these in Baltimore, MD.

photo2

The complete list of the “We affect what goes in our watershed” week

Here are pictures of the storm drain labeling event.

70 Degrees West project

I’m continuing the theme of “We affect what goes in our watershed” this week (see posts on pharmaceuticals and oil) and introducing you to an adventurous and creative couple, Justin Lewis and Michelle Stauffer, working together on the 70 Degrees West project. They launched this project almost a year ago in April of 2012 and have completed Phase I – an expedition to Greenland. They have 8 expeditions planned along the 70 degree line of longitude. According to their blog, they’re currently  traveling, taking pictures, and shooting video in  Penobscot Watershed in Maine.

But, what really brought them to my attention was this Kickstarter project for Phase III. They’re headed to the Sargasso Sea to provide an “informative, eye-opening account about what’s going on in the oceans”. You may have heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch, but there is also one that exists in the Atlantic Ocean. During the expedition they’ll merge science and art to  “demonstrate how human actions on land impact our oceans”, especially with the accumulation of marine debris in the sea. The Sargasso Sea lies in the center of a huge oval of still waters bounded by ocean currents – the only sea not bordered by land. Dr. Sylvia Earle has called the Sargasso Sea “the golden rainforest of the ocean” because of the extensive amounts of Sargassum that floats in mats on the surface of the ocean. The Sargasso Sea is also the epic place that eels mysteriously mate.

The project has just 25 days to go. Check out this video and learn more about them today!

PlasticAccumulation_Wired

Computer model output of where plastic accumulates worldwide from Wired

What is marine debris? It is any type of garbage that can get into the ocean (e.g., glass, aluminum cans, plastic bags). It’s important to remember that even though you might not drop trash at the shoreline, if you’re dropping trash ANYWHERE it will lead to the ocean by waterways such as streams, rivers, and lakes. Did you know that the vast majority of marine debris is plastic? Learn more about how plastic can be harmful to marine life here.

Besides marine debris, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals, what are some other ways fish or aquatic life are affected by what we put in our waterways?

You can read about 5 incredible marine debris warriors here.

Lastly, best of luck to Justin Lewis and Michelle Stauffer as you continue your 70 Degrees West project!

From Sandy, coastal towns learn ‘dune’ diligence lesson. Is it enough?

The superstorm still affecting millions along the mid-Atlantic is a wake-up call. The damage due to flooding and fires is unmatched to any other storm in recent history. Experts say the event will not be an unfamiliar one in future decades due to an influx of people living along the coast and the impending sea level rise. As plans for restoring and rebuilding get underway, there needs to be recognition that some communities survived due to a stable dune plant community (“dunes”). For instance Avalon, North Wildwood, Harvey Cedars, Ship Bottom, Surf City, as well as my hometown of Stone Harbor were all spared a considerable amount of damage because their beaches have a healthy dune system or had recently been replenished. Even the City of Cape May with its concrete boardwalk ended up getting inundated with an influx of sand.

Should we rebuild the dunes?

The $38 billion dollar tourism industry in New Jersey relies heavily dunes to help maintain healthy and productive beaches. We know that we can rebuild the dunes and replenish the beach because we’ve done it before. City planners and municipal governments should recognize the value of dune plant communities and plan accordingly. It is striking a delicate balance of restoring for Memorial Day weekend 2013, as well as Memorial Day weekend 2113. According to Nash and Rogers, authors of The Dune Book, “dunes will not provide protection from seasonal beach fluctuation or long-term erosion”. They also noted the importance of rebuilding dunes as far landward as possible when challenged with a wide recovering area after a direct hit by a hurricane. However, there are issues to confront with this short-term solution (e.g., cost to taxpayers, property rights). I urge progressive municipalities to continue their innovation and begin doing assessments of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise to their towns, as well as the benefits of resilient design for beach front properties.

What are dunes?

As wind and waves from the sea come landward, sand is accumulated within dune grasses. Each dune plant community is distinct – even from moment to moment – sand is dynamic and the underestimated element of the earth. You may generally think of dunes as mountains of sand 12 feet tall covered in vegetation (e.g., brittle, whistling grasses or robust, waxy sea oats) that extend a quarter-mile from the nearest street to the volleyball court on the hot sand leading to the sea, but dunes can also be mountains of sand completely submerged by the ocean as Sylvia Earle discovered off the coast of the Bahamas. Dune grasses may look fragile; however their network of horizontal roots is strongly embedded deep within the beach terrain. Each buildup of sand creates a strong and more stable dune plant community. The sand build up typically runs parallel to the coastline.

What are the benefits to dunes?

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for protecting and maintaining the dunes. Here are some of the reasons dunes are beneficial to Jersey shore communities:

  • Dunes store sand that help diminish potential shoreline erosion.
  • Dunes absorb the impact of storm surge and high waves.
  • Dunes prevent water from flooding coastal towns.
  • Dunes provide habitat and crucial nesting area for threatened and endangered species.
  • Dunes create a relaxing backdrop to any beach.
  • Dunes buffer the full force of the ocean and protect property.

What is the opposition to dunes?

One of the major concerns with replenishing beaches and rebuilding dunes is that it may not be the best long-term solution, especially as we attempt to mitigate the effects of the sea level rise. In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected a sea level rise of 20 to 70 cm by 2100. All the while since 1986, the U.s. Army Corps of Engineers has paid $700 million to pump and dump sand on 54 miles of New Jersey coast – all to have it creep seaward an average of four feet. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 85,000 U.S. coastal properties could fall into the sea in less than 50 years (2000 study). Not to mention this list of reasons dunes are looked upon as a hindrance:

  • Dunes obstruct oceanfront views.
  • Dunes make the walk to the sea a little longer.
  • Dunes shrink the available space for the beach.
  • Dunes tend to hamper an ocean breeze.
  • Dunes hinder potential private access to the beach.

How can you get involved in rebuilding and restoring the Jersey shore?

It’s clear we have a long road ahead of us. The answer(s) will not be easy. I am looking forward to witnessing some courageous new perspectives on coastal city planning as we rebuild. In the meantime we can all do our part. Here are some ways you can participate in the efforts to help victims of Hurricane Sandy:

  • Charitably: Make a donation to the American National Red Cross (Text REDCROSS to 90999).
  • Fashionably: Spend $20 and purchase a “Unite and Rebuild” t-shirt from Jetty.
  • Motivation-ally: Take a lesson from Shannon Caulfield and follow your heart to do your part. She connected with over 1,000 people on social media to organize beach clean-ups along the Jersey shore.
  • Scientifically: Participate in a beach clean-up and track what marine debris you find.
  • Athletically: Run a race of any distance this month and join the virtual race for Hurricane Sandy Recovery.
  • Realistically: Make every effort to learn more. Check out this opportunity to educate yourself on local land use (i.e., understanding the balance of preservation and development) in south Jersey sponsored by WHYY.

Author’s note: I recognize that there was extensive damage in many mid-Atlantic states, not just New Jersey. However, due to my connection to the south Jersey environment I focused on the rebuilding and restoring efforts in that state.

10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip

Pick up that clump! You never know what you'll find.

Pick up that clump! You never know what you’ll find.

It’s my favorite time of year. This is the best time to explore the beach. It’s still sunny and warm, there are frequent storms (you’ll see why that matters later), and there are few people on the beach. For another six weeks along the mid-Atlantic (before it gets too cold), I encourage you to spend some time getting to know your local shoreline. Here are 10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip.

10. What to bring. Here is a list of some items you may want to remember so you’re prepared for any situation.

  • Often the beach is considerably cooler than inland so bring layers. You may want to wear hiking pants and bring a zippered sweatshirt so you’re equipped with lots of pockets for some other items that might be essential.
  • Make sure to have some appropriate soles. Sure it’s our instinct to be barefoot, however if you want to venture out along the jetties or rocks make sure you have some old sneakers or those water shoes with some decent grip (After all, you don’t want to ruin your adventure with a puncture to some sharp object). Also, the water might be a little cooler than you’d prefer and some good foot cover will allow you to wade into a tide pool.
  • Make sure to have a watch.
  • Even during the off-season the sun is shining and is strong enough to give you a burn. Make sure to bring along a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • It’s always a good idea to bring a shovel, grabber sick, or even a metal detector so you can gently investigate inside crevices and below the sand.
  • You are going to want to cherish the moments so find that camera and try to make a neck strap so it’s always handy. You can take pictures of items you find and want to learn about later. You’ll also want to catalog those smiles in the sun.
  • Take along a small (i.e., not heavy) identification book so you can learn more about what you find while on your outing.

9. Be hands free. One more item that you’re going to love me for suggesting is a backpack. This way you can investigate a little bit further from your base and your items are quickly at your disposal.

8. Leave important items behind. Don’t ruin the day by losing a credit card or your phone. If you’re active and in the moment you might lose something and it’s going to be difficult to retrace your steps. I won’t say “I told you so”. On the same note it’s important to leave animals, plants, rocks, and seashells where you find them. If you want to have a little bit of the beach in your home check out these great books by Josie Iselin.

7. When to go. To get the optimum experience for beachcombing you’ll want to check on when low tide is at your beach spot. The best time to go beachcombing is 2-3 hours prior to low tide or an hour or so after (This is why a watch is important, you don’t want to get stuck on  shoal during high tide). Many intertidal animals live under the water in the sand during high tide, but come out to play (and seek out food) during low tide. If you can time it so you get to check out the beach after a big storm you’ll be in for a real treat. The strong wind and wave action of storms will wash up a fossils, bones, seaweed, and lot of other interesting treasures from the ocean floor. Also, keep in mind that dawn and dusk are difficult times to identify beach treasures. Although this is a great time to spot birds as many fish tend to come up to the surface at these times.

6. Where to go. My favorite spot to beachcomb is the Stone Harbor Point in NJ, but it’s not always easy for me to get there these days. I like to remind myself from time to time that I don’t need an ocean to beachcomb. There is a lake and creek in my neighborhood and these spots are a great place to spend the afternoon. After all, these waterways eventually lead to the ocean.  No matter where I decide to spend some time beachcombing I always make sure to note the general water quality.

5. Be careful. This is just a reminder to not tamper with obviously dangerous items. Fish hooks, metal canisters, and needles often wash up on the beach. While I am going to also suggest doing your part and picking up marine debris it’s also a good idea to err on the side of caution and when poking around. Also, some rocks look very steady but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. If you are feeling like having an adventurous day it’s might be a good idea to make sure you have someone else with you. One last thing about being careful,even though the dunes might look like an interesting place to check out – it’s important to know that those grasses are incredibly brittle and can crack easily. It’s also against the law to walk on the dunes. The dunes are an important part of the beach ecosystem as they protect our homes from storm surge.

4. Leave it be. Each rock that you turn over is part of an ecosystem. A rock might be an essential part of an animal’s home as it helps pool water during high tide. Rocks also protect them from predator as well as the sun. It’s important to always remember to not take animals out of their natural setting – especially if you see them in a tide pool. Many animals are naturally attached to rocks for survival and you could be risking their survival.

3. Play. You might not want to go home, but you also might be in the company of some people that just don’t have a very long attention span. Even more frustrating is repeating the phrase, “No, you cannot go in the water today” over and over again. Build a sandcastle. Look to the horizon for dolphins or porpoises. Make a sand angel. Look up to the sky for cloud animals. Check out my ebook for other beachcombing adventures.

2. Bag it and track it. It’s always nice to be prepared to be able to do your part. I prefer to take along a hefty canvas bag that can fit in a backpack so I can tote marine debris back to a garbage can. You might even try to acquire one of these nifty bags with holes for sand to percolate through from the Green Bag Lady. When you head back to the car you can even do some citizen science and log your marine debris on the Marine Debris Tracker.

1. Don’t expect too much. It’s important to remember to relax and respect the area you are exploring. All of the ideas above are simply suggestions and ideas to ensure you get the most out of  a beachcombing adventure. Please don’t hesitate to share your favorite stories, spots, and other ideas for a great day. You can comment below of email me at info@beachchairscientist.com.

What they’re into … with Harold Johnson (The Flotsam Diaries)

Yesterday I promised more insight into one of the featured marine debris heroes as part of the “What Marine Conservationists Are Into …” series are here you have it – The Flotsam Diaries own Harold Johnson! In case you didn’t know this is a series I have been presenting each Tuesday this summer to get a special sneak peek at the many different personalities behind the scientists, activists, and educators (including bloggers) who play an integral role in the marine science conservation field. It’s essentially an extension of the overwhelmingly popular and well done Tumblr blog, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, (BCS was featured in April of 2012!) which sets out to illustrate that scientists are not just crazy haired nerds in lab coats. I sent a list of 15 random questions and asked that each person share at least their answers to 5 of them.

Harold Johnson, copyeditor and writer by trade, spends at least one day a week sifting beaches for other people’s litter. For fun. In March 2010, he stumbled onto a sickening scene of storm-washed debris at his local beach in southern Maine. Since then, he’s been writing as “The Flotsam Diaries,” (http://www.theflotsamdiaries.org) trying to learn about the nature of the garbage that washes into the ocean, how it got there, and what can be done about it. And then he works daily to share what he’s learned. In addition to his blog and social media, he’s got a growing body of guest posts at Scientific American online (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/08/16/plastics-in-the-ocean-how-dense-are-we/). His motto is “See – Learn – Change,” and he encourages everyone who visits The Flotsam Diaries to stop for a moment, look down at the ground around them, and really see what’s there.

What is the last thing you bought that you shouldn’t have?
A new app called “Catapult King.” I really don’t need another distraction or excuse to “take 5”!

What is your favorite fruit flavor?
Blueberries. I know this because for 40 years I thought that yogurt was a curse from the yawning mouths of Hell. Yet recently I’ve fallen in love with blueberry yogurt. If blueberries can do that, they can do anything. Plus there’s nothing like discovering a secret wild blueberry barren in August, picking them to your heart’s content.

What is your favorite Sunday breakfast?
Home-made pancakes from scratch (I’ve got a recipe that comes out just like Bisquick, which is the height of good pancakes). A couple eggs over-medium. And much bacon. Crispy, smoked, delicious bacon.

Are you a night owl or a morning person?
Before fatherhood, most definitely a night-owl. But now I barely sleep past 7AM even when I can. And if I’m out past 10PM it’s a big evening.

Which sitcom character do you relate to?
Abed from “Community,” hands-down. Though friends will say, lovingly no doubt, Cliff from “Cheers.”

What is your favorite scent?
Dew-y pastureland in the Tynedale region of Northumberland, UK as the sun peeks over the Pennines and the mists hang in the valleys. There is no smell like that air.

What is your favorite pastime?
Learning. It’s such a remarkable world, my biggest thrill is discovering some new connection that I’d never made before. I love reading, but usually nonfiction. If it’s fiction I usually lose interest half-way through. Only Tolkien really holds my interest. But then again, everyone knows Hobbits are real, right? Other than that, I love exploring coasts & trails, and playing frisbee with our daughter, who has a mean wrist-flick for a 5-year-old. And she and I also play a lot of Minecraft these days. Curse those Creepers!

How superstitious are you?
I own a black cat and have broken many mirrors, so I guess not very. But I do think there is much, much more to “reality” than our senses are aware of. And I have a Zombie talisman in my car to protect me from the Zombie Apocalypse.

Are you a cat person, dog person, or neither?
Cat. I get them, and they get me. One of my secret powers is befriending truculent cats. I’m pretty sure I was a well-loved housecat once, and will be again.

What’s some other random favorite information about you?
I’ve done archaeology at 3 sites in the UK, most recently & most often at Vindolanda, a Roman fort just behind Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve taken the entire front off of a 1967 Cougar down to the engine block and successfully put it back together. I used the Internet when there were less than 1000 people on it and it was still all text. And I can bend the tips of my fingers downward without bending the other joints/knuckles.

5 on-the-ground warriors for marine debris

I’ll be incredibly frank and honest and say that I do not do as much on-the-ground ocean activism as I’d like to do these days. I do participate the occasion stream clean-up and rally from time to time, but with a full-time job and a family including an active toddler, time is scarce and I’m lucky if I can pull it together to write a post or two or marine debris. Since this upcoming weekend is the annual International Coastal Cleanup I wanting to take the time to send a shout out and a huge virtual dose of gratitude for 5 very active on-the-ground marine debris and ocean activists. If you have the chance, check out what they’re doing as I know every time I read up on what they’re accomplishing I am continually inspired. As a matter of fact, you’ll have the chance to get to know one of them a little bit more in-depth tomorrow as a part of the “What Marine Conservationists Are Into …” series. (On a side note, all of my Virginia friends and family should be on the lookout because I am gearing up to gather a crowd to participate in the Virginia Waterways Cleanups!)

Sarah Bayles of The Daily Ocean
Sarah is steadfastly collecting trash from the same beach for 20 minutes at a time for 365 non-consecutive days to “raise awareness for how much trash is on our beaches and getting into the ocean, that the solutions start with us right here on land, and that everyday we can make choices in what we consume and buy that can add up to make a difference”. Her work ethic is inspiring and she’s diligent in posting the weight of the trash she collects. At the point I write this post she collected 1,234.3 pounds in 325 days.

Danielle Richardet of It Starts With Me
Just like Sarah of Our Daily Ocean, Danielle spends 20 minutes a day cleaning a beach but in Wrightsville Beach, NC and she’s focused on finding cigarette butts. Here incredibly positive message is that “It’s simple…everything we do (or don’t do) has an impact on the world we live in. It starts with me and ripples to you…”. I wish Danielle the best as she continues her quest to “create a smoke-free beach and have proper cigarette butt disposal receptacles installed on Wrightsville Beach”. Can you believe she’s collected 50,129 cigarette butts in 156 days?

Harold Johnson of The Flotsam Diaries
Harold Johnson has been researching and collecting marine debris weekly at two very different sites (one active by beachgoers and one non-active) in Maine since June of 2010. As he puts it, “I’m hoping to learn something about the debris that arrives at the beach both by regular beachgoers, and by actions of wave & wind”. You can read his findings weekly on his blog or get some more detailed reviews of his research at Scientific American.

Cheryl ‘Sandy’ King of Sharkastics
Cheryl is interested in everything ocean-related, but has found a niche spreading the word all about sharkastics. Sharkastics are what she has termed “plastics that have obvious bite marks (e.g., jagged serrations and/or punctures). She posts many images of the debris she finds and is more than happy to share them for educational purposes (although she requests you share with her how you use them).

Tim Silverwood of Take 3: A Clean Beach Initiative
Tim is a surfer and plastic pollution spokesperson based in Australia. In 2009, he and his compadres began thinking about proactive ways the public could reduce the amount of waste entering the oceans. The Take-3 initiative was born. As the website states, “The ‘Take 3’ message is simple: take 3 pieces of rubbish when you leave the beach, waterway or…anywhere and you have made a difference”.

Here is a powerful and beautifully done depiction on why everyone is responsible for marine debris. Thanks to designer and illustrator Jenny Wang for reminding us that it is not just those that live near an ocean who contribute to ocean pollution.