When human feet mysteriously started washing up onto shores in and around Vancouver in 2007, the city officials and the media alike had to assume there was a serial killer with a penchant for dismembering victims on the loose.
The first foot was discovered in 2007 by an unfortunate girl who saw a tennis shoe on the beach of Jedediah Island, just northwest of Vancouver, picked it up and looked inside the sock. Only six days later, a man’s foot was discovered by an unsuspecting couple on Gabriola Island. That was followed by another man’s foot some 5 months later on Valdes Island, and then a woman’s foot another 3 months later – all four were right feet, all clad in a tennis shoe.
Fast-forward to 2015, eleven feet washed up around Vancouver to date – some left, some right. The only common thread in all discoveries is that no other body parts ever turned up.
Seas around the world wash up all kinds of stuff all the time, anything from tens of thousands of edible Dorito bags to a recently-found flaperon from a missing MH370 flight. But it seemed highly unlikely that a sudden onset of discoveries of such a specific human appendage could be attributed to anything but foul play. So it was somewhat of a surprise that the investigators were able to rule out foul play in all but one of the cases.
Bill Inkster, a former dentist who runs the identification unit for the Coroners Service in British Columbia doesn’t believe in mysteries. “They’re not severed, they’re disarticulated,” explains Inkster.
Decomposition in water often results in separation of feet and hands from the rest of the body because the joints holding them together are relatively weak.
“It was just the sudden appearance of the very buoyant shoes. It turned them into little life jackets, so they tend to bob up. Historically, they would just lay there,” said Inkster in his interview with The Province in 2014.
Inkster’s team used DNA to identify all but one individual, and it turned out there was nothing unusual about their deaths either.
“Once you’ve determined who this is, you fill in the story of that person’s life, and the story of their last moments before they went missing.” Based on the backgrounds that he and his team discovered, it all pointed to deaths by suicide. “That’s the common theme,” said Inkster.
Aside from the two feet belonging to the same yet-to-be-identified victim, this sudden onset of discoveries of human feet is simply a case of world’s weirder flotsam found.
Most people that hear the term flotsam have a vague idea that it is related to things that wash up at sea. Flotsam, as its name implies, is floating wreckage of a ship, its cargo, or in the above case, human remains. But what about Jetsam, Lagan and Derelict?
Jetsam is a collective name for items thrown overboard by passengers or crew of a marine vessel.
As an example, as the Titanic sank, panicked passengers who were left without a raft threw their luggage overboard to give themselves something to hold onto and keep afloat. Some of those artefacts are among the highest prized jetsam today (contraction of the word jettison), and have fetched millions of dollars in various auctions. But they are certainly not among the most unusual jetsam pieces found.
When a floating 8-foot minifig (Lego man) was found bobbing in ankle-deep waters of Siesta Key Beach in Florida, the police promptly “arrested” this unusual example of jetsam.
The figure was designed by an artist who calls himself Ego Leonard (perhaps an anagram for a Lego drone?), as signed on the back of the figurine. It’s perhaps because of this signature that the sheriff’s office issued the statement naming the figurine after the artist by saying “Mr. Leonard is being kept in a secure environment until his owner comes forward”.On his website, as well as the linked Facebook page, the artist behind this stunt seem to have assumed the identity of the figurine as he continues to publish new images of additional figurines discovered on beaches around the world, with captions such as “I am still in Japan”
Lagan is a term that describes goods or wreckage at the bottom of the ocean which can be reclaimed, either partially or in full.
El Faro was a cargo ship that was lost at sea during the Hurricane Joaquin in October this year (2015). It was en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico when it suffered a mechanical failure and got stranded in the path of the oncoming hurricane. Sadly, the crew of 33 perished as the ship was pummeled by 50-foot waves in 250 Kmh winds.
About a month ago, a US Navy search ship found a blip on their sonar which turned out to be El Faro. What makes this wreckage unique is that the 800 ft ship is resting deeper than Titanic. But what makes this wreck peculiar is that the ship came to rest upright, and without breaking apart.
Normally, when a ship of El Faro’s size sinks, air pockets get trapped in the vessel, causing the increasing water pressure to crush it and weaken its structure. That allows the force of the water rushing past it to break it apart as it sinks. Ships that survive this fate often do because they are in shallower waters, meaning less time for the rushing water to break it apart. However, by rule, such ships end up resting on their side or upside down, which is not the case with El Faro.
It is unlikely that El Faro will be reclaimed. Its most likely fate is resting at the bottom of the ocean forever. However efforts are being made to retrieve an essential data recorder using an underwater robotic vehicle.
If successful, this lagan should give us a glimpse of the ship’s final moments before sniking.
Wreck Hiding in Plain Sight
In 2006, a 72-year-old Davie Lee Niles went missing from his town of Wyoming. His family reported his disappearance to the police who was unable to find any clues to his whereabouts.
“My understanding is that he was living at a motel in the area and he went to a local bar that night and never returned,” says Kent County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Ron Gates.
For years his disappearance remained a mystery. Eventually, the family ran an obituary, while the case remained stalled.
However, four weeks ago, Brian Houseman from Byron Center, MI found himself decorating a Christmas tree outside a funeral home, when he spotted an overturned car in the pond on the establishment grounds.
He called the police, who pulled the car out and discovered Niles’ body. No tire tracks were found in the grass, and strangely enough, at the time of this writing the car is still visible on Google Earth. Apparently the vehicle containing the body has been hiding in plain sight since 2006 at N 42.812570° W 85.715983°.
While any submerged piece of wreckage that is retrievable could be called lagan, this one is a notable exception. To qualify this as lagan would be difficult to say the least – the wreck would have to have been submerged at sea, as opposed to a pond. But as it’s still unclear how Davie Niles drove his car into the pond without anyone in the surrounding residential area ever taking notice, we felt it was worthy of a mention.
Derelict is wreckage or cargo which no one has any hope of reclaiming from the bottom of the ocean. But did you ever wonder how many non-recoverable ships are littering the bottoms of oceans around the world?
Director of the Maritime Heritage Program at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), James Delgado, estimates about a million shipwrecks currently hiding at the bottom of the oceans around the world.
That is a lot of ships.
“Given everything that’s charted and all the rest, I would say that the majority of them remain undiscovered,” Delgado said in an interview with Popular Mechanics.
Considering how three quarters of the planet is covered by oceans and that 95% of them remain unexplored, it’s not a surprise that estimates can soar that high. Adding to that, there are 350 pieces of cargo lost at sea every year, and a good deal of new shipwrecks gets added to that number as well.
A number of companies that are actively pursuing recoveries of shipwrecks around the globe has steadily been diminishing over the years. The logistics of recovering any sunken treasures make it prohibitively expensive to attempt most of the recoveries.
Also, once recovered, the claims on the recovered items can be (and often are) challenged in court. So it is not likely that the world will see even a small fraction of the loot that litters the ocean’s floors.
As the technology improves, perhaps some of this derelict may one day become recoverable. But for the time being, most of the sunken treasures, however valuable, will remain unrecoverable either for economic or other reasons.