This is the first article in a series I’m going to do–a little odd as far as this blog is concerned–not about the band, though I will give a nod to them in each article, but about stuff floating in the ocean. That may sound like a pretty dull topic to do a three-part blog series on, but it’s actually staggeringly large. As it turns out there’s a tremendous amount of junk bobbing around in the world’s oceans, some prosaic, some strange, and some downright scary. Originally I was going to do an article just on tonight’s topic alone, but I realized it touched so many other interesting aspects that I thought I’d better do at least the top three. Defining the boundaries of what “flotsam” is, and what “counts” for purposes of this series, is a pretty subjective thing.

But first, a personal story. In the summer of 2008 I crossed from New York to Germany aboard the transatlantic liner Queen Mary 2. It was a fascinating trip, but one seemingly minor thing that I’ll never forget sparked my interest in ocean flotsam. I was hanging out on deck with my friend Zack. The ship was literally in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Curiously, in the water beneath the ship, I saw a man’s white dress shirt float by. Nothing else, just a disembodied shirt. It was pretty ragged, indicating it had been out there a while. It clearly didn’t come off our ship and there were none others in the vicinity. I thought a lot about that shirt. How did it get there? Was it lost overboard innocently, or did it come from a shipwreck of some kind? How long had it been out there? Who last wore it? Most chillingly, might it have come off a corpse? I’ll never know, of course, but wondering about the life of objects floating in the ocean gave rise to this series.

On August 20, 2007, a girl walking on the shore of the Salish Sea on the coast of British Columbia in Canada noticed a single shoe washed up on the beach. She went to pick it up and made a horrifying discovery: there was still a human foot inside, from the ankle down. The shoe was a size 12 Adidas sneaker. The police determined the foot was a man’s. The shoe may have come from India, for it was the type usually distributed there. With only one foot to go on there was no telling whether foul play was involved.

The floating feet mystery has made the news repeatedly in the past 8 years. Here’s a report of one incident from August 2011.

Six days later it happened again. On August 26 another severed foot inside a shoe was found, also on the British Columbia shore. It was also a man’s foot, also size 12, a Reebok this time, and the model of shoe was older, having been discontinued in 2004. Two disembodied feet found on Canadian beaches inside a week is bizarre enough, but the grisly phenomenon kept occurring. At least ten other feet, all inside sneakers, have been found on beaches of British Columbia and Washington State since the initial discovery in the summer of 2007. Authorities were utterly baffled. The discoveries got quite a lot of press especially in 2007 and 2008; I remember a lot of articles about them being shared and posted on Facebook about that time.

I remember hearing, about three or maybe four years ago, that the mystery of the washed-up feet had been solved, though I didn’t recall what the explanation was. In researching this article, which I expected to be a “weird historical-but-not-current-mystery” type of thing that I’ve done before on this blog, I was surprised to discover that the mystery of the Salish Sea feet hasn’t been solved at all. And it’s still happening. The last foot was found washed up on the Seattle waterfront in May 2014, less than a year ago. I would not be at all surprised if it happens again in 2015.

The reason why there have been media reports that the mystery has been “solved” is because law enforcement agencies in Canada and the U.S. have largely been able to rule out the most prevalent speculation about the source of the feet: that they were victims of a serial killer who was cutting people’s feet off and throwing them in the ocean, the way serial killers in movies (and some in real life) take trophies or maim victims in unusual ways. The owners of the feet don’t appear to be murder victims. Some have been identified. Two of the Salish Sea feet, for instance, were found to come from the same man, who died of natural causes in Surrey, B.C. (How, then, did he get in the ocean, and where’s the rest of him?) Another foot was determined to have come from a woman who committed suicide by jumping off the Pattullo Bridge in British Columbia in 2004. One of the leading theories is that all or most of the feet are from “bridge jumpers” or other people who wound up, from suicides or accidents, in the Pacific Ocean off British Columbia, for instance, the unrecovered bodies of several men who died in a plane that went down at sea in 2005.

zahorujkos shoe

This is Stefan Zahorujko’s shoe. Where’s the rest of him?

Then there’s the case of Stefan Zahorujko. In November 2011 an old boot washed up on the shore of Sasamat Lake near Vancouver. It had a human foot inside of it. Authorities determined the foot belonged to Stefan Zahorujko, a 65-year-old fisherman who was presumed drowned while fishing in the lake in January 1987.

Wait…let’s have that again. 1987? It took nearly 25 years for his foot to wash up? Yes, it did. Although Sasamat Lake is fresh water and doesn’t have a direct ocean outlet–and thus Zahorujko’s foot isn’t technically ocean flotsam–it illustrates one of the problems with this case, which is, startlingly, that a human body can remain at least partially intact in a large body of water for up to 30 years. Experts believe the feet detach from the body by natural processes–meaning they rot and fall off or are chewed away by fish–and the feet float up because they’re encased in shoes that float (many of their soles contain airtight bubbles, for instance). For every foot that’s washed up in the Salish Sea, there’s a human body, perhaps still largely intact, perhaps even partially clothed, hanging around out there somewhere on the bottom of the sea. And they could be there for years or even decades. Human bodies sink when the lungs fill with water, so we’re not talking about “floaters”–but when the bodies come apart, pieces of them become flotsam.

Now you see why my discovery of that man’s dress shirt bobbing in the North Atlantic may be more macabre than it might otherwise seem?

For those of you disappointed that this article isn’t about the metal band Flotsam & Jetsam, here is a great track of theirs, “Desecrator” from the Doomsday for the Deceiver album.

In the next installment, I’ll bust some myths and spin some truths about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the most notorious legacies of our modern world. Stay tuned!

I believe the photo of Zahorujko’s shoe comes from the British Columbia Coroner’s Service and should be public domain.