Roughly 40 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean, a pair of marine biology students are counting starfish on the seabed. But among the plants and creatures at the bottom of the ocean, they discover something a little more out of place. An amazing story is about to unfold…
On May 13, 2014, a team from the marine ecology department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, were conducting a scientific dive. In partnership with a number of other Canadian colleges, the institution operates Bamfield Marine Sciences – a charitable organization dedicated to aquatic research.
Founded in 1972, Bamfield Marine Sciences is based in the building that once served as the western North American landfall point of an undersea cable stretching all the way around the globe. Today, by contrast, it educates school and university-aged students about the wonders of the underwater world. But the drama that unfolded in 2014 was like nothing the facility had ever seen before.
That May, students were investigating the waters off Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, the excursion in question was to be the last in a program designed to offer the students experience of scientific diving. And at the outset, at least, their mission was simple.
Supervising the dive was Bamfield Marine Science’s dive and safety officer Siobhan Gray. Under her guidance, it seems, the students had been tasked with studying the local marine life. And in a region as diverse as Vancouver Island, that looked set to be a rewarding and fascinating activity.
Located in the Pacific Ocean some 60 miles or so from Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Island is home to around 870,000 people. However, the flora and fauna there are arguably the real attraction. On land, elk, wolves and cougars all roam, while beneath the surface of the bays and coves an even more vibrant natural world awaits.
In fact, the waters off Vancouver Island are positively teeming with marine life. Apparently, the currents here are among the most powerful in the world, with these tides and eddies bringing a steady flow of nutrients into the area. As a result, then, a vast array of creatures have made this part of the Pacific Ocean their home.
On a typical dive, for example, underwater explorers can expect to see anemones, sponges, barnacles and nudibranchs as well as alien-looking feather duster worms. And if they are lucky, they may also spot a giant Pacific octopus, an ocean sunfish or a grey whale. In fact, the island is known as one of the best spots for cold-water diving on Earth.
But despite the diverse world at their fingertips, the team from Simon Fraser University had instructions to focus on one specific creature. Common in the waters off Vancouver Island, sea stars, or starfish, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And on this dive, it was the students’ mission to study them.
But what the team ended up discovering was – to most non-marine biologists, at least – a lot more interesting than sea stars. While diving, two of the students, Tella Osler and Beau Doherty, discovered something surprising on the ocean floor. There, covered in algae and sea creatures, was a camera – looking like an ancient relic from long ago.
“One of them picked [the camera] up and put it in his pocket and kept counting the starfish,” Simon Fraser University’s Isabelle Côté, a professor of marine ecology, later told ABC News. “When they came up from the dive, he said, ‘Look what I found.’”
Then, back on the boat, Gray took the opportunity to study the students’ unexpected discovery. And as she was fascinated by both the camera and the fauna growing on its surface, she ultimately decided to bring the artifact back to shore.
Upon studying the camera, moreover, Côté and Gray discovered that it had developed quite the ecosystem. As well as harboring algae, the body of the camera had become a home for two brittle stars – creatures similar to starfish – along with a sea cucumber.
But the most exciting find was yet to come. For when the pair opened up the camera and looked inside, they found something unexpected. Despite being covered in a black growth, the device’s memory card appeared to be intact.
“My first thought about the camera was, are there still images on the card?” Gray told The Vancouver Sun. Then she described what she did next. “I cleaned the contacts off of the [memory card], put it in my computer and it worked.”
The pair were stunned to discover that the eight-gigabyte Lexar Platinum II card was still full of photographs and videos – the last of which was dated July 30, 2012. Many of the pictures were of groups of people and looked to have been taken at an event such as a family get-together or reunion.
But that wasn’t all. Apparently, the card also hosted a video dated July 31, 2012 – almost two full years before the camera had been discovered. And as seen in the clip, someone had captured footage of a full moon reflected in the glassy surface of a calm sea.
According to Gray, the video was so evocative that she believed she was witnessing the final moments before the camera was lost. Indeed, the dive and safety officer claimed that while she was watching the clip, she expected it to finish with the device hitting the water and sinking all the way to the ocean floor.
However, no such dramatic ending came. And after realizing that somebody somewhere may be missing the photographs, Côté and Gray launched a mission to try and locate the original owner. But this was easier said than done.
Côté tweeted one of the photographs from the camera with the hashtag #Detectives in the hope that someone would recognize the subjects. Still, even though the message received more than a hundred retweets, nobody from the small local community came forward with any information.
In the end, it was a more old-fashioned manner of networking that succeeded. Hoping to track down the owner of the camera, Gray made a poster that featured one of the group photos from the memory card. Afterward, she pinned it on a local community message board, appealing for anyone with information to get in touch.
Then, about seven days later, Gray struck gold. Coincidentally, she was walking past the noticeboard where her poster was displayed when she happened to meet the driver of a local water taxi. And, apparently, he had previously spotted her notice and believed that he had some vital information to share.
According to the water taxi driver, there had been a serious boating accident in the area some years previously. Then, after seeing Gray’s poster, he had begun to wonder if the camera may have belonged to the man involved. And although he couldn’t be sure, he suggested that Gray speak to the coast guard for further information.
Without hesitation, Gray took down the poster and headed to the coast guard station on foot. And while there, she subsequently showed the photograph to a friend who agreed with the water taxi driver. You see, one of the men pictured in the snapshot bore a strong resemblance to the person whose boat had sunk back in 2012.
Keen to get to the bottom of the mystery, the coast guard member then rooted through the station’s files to find the record of the incident. And, eventually, they found the information they had been seeking. According to their reports, the man in question was named Paul Burgoyne, and he lived in Vancouver, BC.
In a lucky twist, the records also contained a telephone number for Burgoyne. But although the coast guard member attempted to contact him, they could not get through. Instead, they left an answerphone message including Gray’s contact details – and just days later, the startled citizen returned the call.
So, on the evening of May 21, 2014, Gray and Burgoyne finally managed to resolve the strange mystery. Amazingly, the sailor confirmed that the camera really was his and that he had lost it in a shipwreck two years earlier. What’s more, the dramatic incident had occurred just moments after the full moon video had been filmed.
But how did Burgoyne feel to be reunited with his camera after losing it in such terrifying circumstances? “He was thrilled,” Gray said. “He says when he got off the phone with the coast guard, [he] and his wife were laughing a great deal and mentioned how lucky he was.”
Artist Burgoyne had been sailing to his summerhouse in Tahsis, BC, when he had found himself in difficulty on the night of July 30, 2012. After seemingly getting lost in bad weather, the seafarer’s boat had crashed into the rocks. And owing to the severe damage sustained as a result of the impact, the craft soon sank beneath the waves.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne had managed to swim to shore, although he ultimately found himself stranded – and with hypothermia quickly setting in. Luckily, he was able to attract the attention of patrons at a nearby cliff-top inn, with these people in turn contacting the coast guard. And then finally, after six hours, Burgoyne was rescued from his perilous situation.
Yet hundreds of Burgoyne’s possessions had been lost to the ocean, never to be seen again – for the most part. Even so, this strange string of coincidences ultimately led to the artist being reunited with his camera two years later.
“That just shocked me,” Burgoyne told national broadcaster CBC in 2014. “Getting the camera, or the photos back, that’s really quite wonderful… I have a new respect for, you know, these electronics. You throw most of it away every two years, but that little card is an amazing bit of technology.”
However, the discovery was also tinged with poignancy, as Burgoyne revealed that one of the photographs on the card depicted him and his family at Lake of the Woods in Ontario, Canada. Apparently, the clan had traveled to the location in order to scatter the ashes of Burgoyne’s late parents. And this wasn’t the only bittersweet memory the find stirred up, either.
Following the resurfacing of the camera, you see, Burgoyne found himself reflecting upon the night when he almost died. “Right away, I thought about that bliss that I felt when the ocean went calm. And I was sitting at the back of the boat all by myself and thinking, you know, ‘What could be better than this?’” he told CBC.
At that time, Burgoyne had supposedly believed that the vessel was under control – only to be brought back to reality in a terrifying manner. “I thought I had the boat on autopilot, but clearly I had made a mistake,” he continued. “The next thing, all hell was breaking loose.” And before long, his 30-foot trawler Bootlegger was wrecked.
Despite these painful memories, though, Burgoyne was grateful to Côté and Gray, who soon made arrangements to mail the card to his address. Nevertheless, they make sure to back up the photographs – just in case. “That card seems to be a little unlucky,” said Côté.
And, amazingly, Burgoyne is not the only person to have been reunited with a camera long believed to have been lost at sea. For example, in March 2018 a group of schoolchildren stumbled upon a waterproof device that had washed up on a beach in Taiwan. Then, after debating what to do with their discovery, the kids ultimately posted photographs that had been retrieved from the memory card on the internet.
Amazingly, it took just a few hours before the owner, Serina Tsubakihara, saw the photos and claimed the camera as her own. According to reports, she had lost the device two and a half years previously while diving in Japan – some 150 miles from where it was found. And, understandably, she had once believed that she would never see the camera again.
Meanwhile, in 2016 on the island of Jersey, Clive Dunford discovered a GoPro camera abandoned on a rocky section of beach. Intrigued, he then brought it home, where he managed to retrieve some photographs from the mangled device. And like the children in Taiwan, he posted his discovery online in the hopes that someone may recognize the owner.
But according to Dunford, not even an hour had passed before the mystery was solved. It turns out that the camera belonged to local woman Jenna Volpert, who had dropped it in the ocean some two and a half years before. And much in the same manner as Burgoyne and Tsubakihara, she was delighted to be reunited with her long-lost technology – although no doubt baffled by its unlikely journey.