Experts think they’ve finally figured out why more than 20 severed feet have been found on the beaches of the Salish Sea near Vancouver and Seattle since 2007.
The beaches that surround the Salish Sea, between western Canada and Washington State, are natural beauties. There, beachcombers can find shells, beach glass, and sometimes pieces of pottery. But in 2007, people started coming across something much more gruesome — human feet. So where did the so-called Salish Sea feet come from?
For years, the answer to the so-called severed foot case stumped investigators. As theories about serial killers and human traffickers ran rampant online, they sought to identify who the feet belonged to and how exactly they’d ended up on beaches. Was there a killer at work? Or was something more pedestrian at play?
Finally, after pouring over missing person records and studying underwater pig carcasses and regional tides, researchers think they have their answer to the mystery of the severed foot case. This is the strange story of the Salish Sea feet and how they likely washed ashore.
The Mystery Of The Salish Sea Feet
On August 20, 2007, a 12-year-old girl walking along a beach on Jedediah Island in British Columbia, Canada came across a blue and white running shoe. The shoe, a men’s size 12, was not just a discarded piece of trash. Upon closer inspection, the girl discovered that it also contained a human foot.
The first of the Salish Sea feet, this foot was quickly followed by others. Less than a week later, a second foot appeared on nearby Gabriola Island. Police were stunned, especially since both feet were right feet — and wearing different shoes — meaning that they didn’t belong to the same person.
“Two being found in such a short period of time is quite suspicious,” Garry Cox of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police remarked to the Vancouver Sun. “Finding one foot is like a million to one odds, but to find two is crazy. I’ve heard of dancers with two left feet, but come on.”
Since then, more than 20 feet have been found around the Salish Sea, both in British Columbia and further south in the Puget Sound (near Seattle). As National Geographic reports, almost all of the Salish Sea feet were wearing tennis shoes, though people also found feet in hiking boots.
As more feet washed ashore, many in the Salish Sea region and beyond started asking the same question — where did these feet come from?
Where Did All The Severed Human Feet In The Pacific Northwest Come From?
As feet washed up on beaches between Seattle and Vancouver, theories about their provenance proliferated. Some speculated that the feet belonged to victims of a shadowy serial killer. Others suggested that they came from drowned migrants. One theory in the severed foot case claimed that they came from a plane crash.
To solve the mystery of the Salish Sea feet, researchers sought to understand the behavior of cadavers underwater and the behavior of the Salish Sea itself. In their research, they experimented with pig carcasses as a stand-in for human cadavers.
As National Geographic reports, bodies usually sink — especially if they belonged to someone who drowned. Once they hit the sea floor, forensic scientist Gail Anderson of Simon Fraser University found, cadavers are quickly devoured by sea life like lobsters and crabs.
“[A]rthropods will skeletonize and disarticulate a body quite quickly depending on oceanic conditions,” Anderson told Vox.
This means that feet are quickly separated from the rest of the body. From there, oceanography professor Parker MacCready of the University of Washington found that the Salish Sea provides the perfect conditions to push the disarticulated feet toward shore.
“Things that float at the ocean surface move with the currents, but also are pushed a bit by the wind, and this can be significant in getting them to shore,” MacCready explained to Vox. “The prevailing winds here [around the Salish Sea] are west to east, and so floating stuff in this part of the Pacific gets blown to the coast effectively.”
Researchers also found that tennis shoes played a role in the mystery of the Salish Sea feet. Tennis shoes today are more likely to float; thus, disarticulated feet in tennis shoes are more likely to wash up on a beach.
“Feet easily disarticulate and when they are attached to a flotation device such as a running shoe, they are easily washed ashore,” Anderson told Vox. “Notice there are no feet washing ashore in stiletto heels or flip-flops. Also, today’s running shoes are much more buoyant than in the past.”
Given the behavior of cadavers underwater, the currents of the Salish Sea, and the buoyancy of today’s tennis shoes, investigators believe that the puzzle of the Salish Sea feet has a perfectly logical solution.
The Tragic Solution To The Salish Sea Severed Feet Case
The final piece of the severed feet mystery has to do with the disarticulated feet themselves. Who did they once belong to?
As National Geographic reports, investigators were able to use DNA to match many of the feet to a name. They found that most belonged to missing persons. The vast majority had been missing for more than a year; one of the feet found belonged to a fisherman missing since 1987. In many cases, it was clear that the missing people had died from accidents or suicides, including a woman who jumped from a bridge.
“We found there is nothing suspicious in any of them,” British Columbia Coroners Service spokeswoman Barb McLintock told NBC News. “It appears that the feet become disarticulated from the body naturally with time, as the bodies decompose and are eaten by sea life or other marine organisms.”
McLintock further explained: “[T]he material in the running shoes or hiking boots is too tough for anything to eat through, and some of them have air in them or rubber soles that cause them to float.”
In other words, the story of the Salish Sea feet is a simple — if tragic — one. Investigators believe that people who died by accident or suicide ended up in the water, where arthropods naturally disarticulated their feet. Modern-day tennis shoes, made of buoyant material, floated to the surface, where the currents of the Salish Sea pushed them to shore.
“You don’t get to have too many happy stories if you are in the coroner’s service,” McLintock said, noting that the identification of the feet provided closure to many missing peoples’ families. “This is about as happy as it gets.”
Though feet may continue to appear along the coasts of places like Vancouver and Seattle, it appears that they’re no cause for alarm. The Salish Sea feet are not the work of a serial killer — but of crabs and lobsters.
After reading about the mystery of the Salish Sea feet, go inside the amusing 30-year mystery of the bright orange Garfield phones that kept washing up on a French beach. Or, discover the mystery of the “Montauk Monster,” the strange sea creature that washed up on a New York beach in 2008.