Camera Finds Its Way Back to Owner From Bottom of the Sea

By: Lindsey Charleston | Last updated: Aug 29, 2022

This epic lost-and-found story makes finding a needle in a haystack a relatively easy task by comparison. It involves the repossession of a point-and-shoot camera, a device just about the size of the palm of one’s hand, from the bottom of the sea. Just try to imagine how wide the ocean floor is—you probably can’t.

Paul Burgoyne lost his camera in 2012 during his travels to Tahsis (British Columbia) from Vancouver. He lost it after his boat, the Bootlegger, accidentally drifted five hundred kilometers from its port of origin and sank. He’d since let go of any hope of finding it again until he received a phone call two years later. This is how they found it.

Shipwrecked Item 

In the final stretch of their scientific diving program, a group of students from Bamfield Marine Sciences Center (BMSC) explored the waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in search of marine life. They were about to comb the parts surrounding Aguilar Point to earn some credits for their studies. 

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But the deep blue waters had something else in store for the students. As they reached a depth of forty feet, they came upon an artificial shape. Where its metal wasn’t crusted with barnacles, sand, and patina, it winked at the divers with glints of sunlight.

Twinkle at the Bottom 

Two diving team members were distracted by the faint glimmer below, a star that beaconed them from a strange blue world, triggering their curiosity. They supposed it would not hurt their plans to break off for a few minutes to investigate.

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It’s no wonder they took a moment out from their research to look. From discovering hidden treasures to finding clues like underwater sleuths, underwater exploration has captivated people’s minds as long as we have been able to do it.

Final Dive of the Semester 

Exploring the ocean on a buddy system, Tella Osler and Beau Doherty took their time to enjoy their dive, keeping in mind that it was going to be the last one of the spring semester. With less weight of academic earnestness on their shoulders, they studied the diversity of Bamfield’s marine life with renewed enthusiasm.

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Possibly hoping that it was some kind of treasure, like a sunken gold bar, the two reached out and plucked the artifact from the bottom of the sea floor. It was immediately recognizable as an artificial object. They held it carefully as they rose to the surface.

An Unexpected Find

Their supervisors—Siobhan Gray, a diving and safety officer, and Isabelle M. Côté, a marine ecology professor—were both surprised to see the rectangular object along with various marine flora and fauna placed before them.

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In an interview with ABC News, Professor Côté recounted her surprise when she saw the camera with the rest of the students’ findings. It’s the last place she expected to see a digital device. It looked damaged beyond repair.

Examining The Collected Items

Two years of being under the deep blue sea had transformed the digital camera into a boxy home for several marine species to live in. In fact, it looked more like a coral than anything else, much less a sensitive photographic device.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

Even after bringing it to shore, it took the others a while to realize what it was. None of them expected it to be of any value or function. Instead, the team was more interested in the biological creatures and marine flora that had grown from it.

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Excitement Over the Animals 

The supervisors revealed to ABC News that their excitement over their find was narrowed mainly to the creatures that had made a home out of the camera. They were fascinated by how the organisms had become a part of something alien from the surface.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

The lens had been covered with seaweed. The buttons were layered with patina. Little attention was given to the camera, knowing that electronics don’t pair well with liquids. They assumed it had been dead the moment it fell to the sea.

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Diverse Forms Of Marine Life 

What they had in their hands was something special, but they wouldn’t find out until they reached their laboratory. The students, with the professor’s aid, found several types of phyla that had grown all over the camera and its interior that they could study. 

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

These aquatic plants of varying colors became decors to this makeshift brick of coral. They formed curtains to the object in which biological creatures had moved in. At this point, they still had no idea what was waiting for them, stored in the small, battered camera.

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Adapting To A Strange Habitat 

For the moment, they were all convinced that what they had in their hands was junk—until they studied it more closely. After careful experimentation, they discovered that levers moved and control buttons clicked. They decided to take it apart.

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They found a sea cucumber snuggled within and a few brittle starfish. The students were once again engrossed by the creatures that had adapted to the camera. The thought of prying out its memory card hadn’t even occurred to them at this point.

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The Discovery 

The diver students knew that there was no way the camera could remain functional after being submerged underwater even for a second, much less for a long time. But their curiosity eventually prompted them to dig deeper. They discovered a soaked memory card inserted in the side amidst more corrosion and black substances.

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Professor Gray carefully extracted the 8-gig memory card with a pair of tweezers. They could just about make out the card’s specifications: Lexar Platinum Ii 8 GB. Their minds raced about what could be on the card. But would the card even be readable?

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Technological Takeaways 

If you’re not sure how much data an 8-gig memory card can hold, it’s about 1,000 high-quality pictures—even more, if the pictures are of lower quality—up to 8,000. However, given the state of the thing, the researchers assumed that its contents would have all been corrupted.

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Image via @siobhan/Twitter

They also concluded that the memory card could not have been more than fifteen years old since it became available to consumers in 1999. From this, they wondered how long this could have been lost at sea and what the odds were of it being functional.

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Pulling Two Weeds With One Yank 

The Bamfield Marine Sciences Center students got more than they asked for on their spring semester’s last dive. It had been a successful course, and now they were able to haul in enough academic material to work on. Plus, they had this mysterious camera.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

Curiosity got the better of them. With more time on their hands and given that they were a little bored without access to their diving equipment and the creatures of the sea, the researchers decided to probe the camera’s memory card.

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Working On The Card

After cataloging the organisms they collected from the sunken camera from the scenic Vancouver Island, they focused their minds on the card. They wondered if they’d need some kind of special equipment to read the card if it didn’t just work on a regular computer.

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The chip couldn’t possibly work after being submerged for so many years, could it? They gave it a try. Gray inserted the card straight into her computer, and lo and behold—the computer actually managed to read its contents.

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Accessing the files

The students and their professors set aside their academic interests for a moment to examine the files on the sunken camera’s memory card. The files didn’t load right away. When they finally gained access to the memory card’s data, they found that the picture was taken on July 30, 2012.

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That was two years from the day they retrieved the camera, at forty feet below the surface. There were some videos, and numerous snapshots perfectly displayed on their monitor—as if they were all just recently taken. The files, much to their surprise, were uncorrupted.

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Identifying the Owner of the Device 

It was hard to tell from the photos alone who the original owner of the camera was. A stream of photos revealed numerous faces and group pictures snapped in what appeared to be family reunions. Obviously, none of the people looked familiar to the divers.

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Professor Gray’s attention was all caught up on a video recording. It was the last file to be recorded: a full moon shining over the smooth surface of the ocean. They searched for clues that might help them find the owner.

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Finding Its Rightful Owner 

Beyond their need to understand their environment, to research, study, and learn more about marine life, as well as gain university credits for their course, they knew it was their moral obligation to find the rightful owner of this enigmatic camera.

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The staff and students knew that they had to find a way to get in touch with whoever owned it. It was time for the researchers to put on their thinking caps and come up with a game plan. Surely there must be a way to crack the case!

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Taking Advantage of the Internet 

The team of Canadian students, together with their professors, settled up in their office to come up with a search mission to find the camera’s owner. They exchanged their masks, flippers, and oxygen tanks for pens and papers, cellphones, and computers.

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They put up notices online and tweeted information regarding their find, hoping to get a response from anyone—they needed a clue that may lead to the owner’s identity. But modern technology wasn’t the only channel available to them.

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Old-School Methods

While Professor Isabelle Côté took charge of posting online about the shipwrecked property, uploading photographs, and tweeting online, Professor Gray printed physical copies of the pictures they found on the memory card and started posting them around town.

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They gave handouts when possible, asked around, and talked to people they knew who might have bits of information to share that they might piece together for clues. Details of what they were looking for were also posted on the local community bulletin board.

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Getting A Response

Their posts created a stir of further questions, but no answers to their inquiries seemed forthcoming in the many days after their initial effort. The waiting game was long and drawn out. Days went by. It was an S.O.S. call that remained unheard.

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Just as when they were about to give up on their objective, they received a reply a week after their first post. It came from a local coastguard member who recognized one of the faces in the picture from an incident that he was involved in way back.

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Connecting the Dots 

The coast guard who called up Prof. Gray about the posters said that he responded to a rescue mission about two years ago, but he wasn’t sure if the exact man in the picture was the person they were looking for. He wasn’t able to offer a name to the face.

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With this, they delved into records of shipping incidents within the past two years and came across a name: Paul Burgoyne. They found his number and called him. It went to voicemail, but they left a message. Everything was up in the air.

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Paul Returns Their Call

Paul Burgyone’s voice on the other line was like a breakthrough. They could not believe their plan to reach out to the camera’s owner worked. Now they had him on the other end of the line. He could hardly believe it, either. What an amazing story! But it doesn’t end here.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

Paul confirmed that the shipwrecked gadget was his. In an ABC News interview, he expressed his gratitude for going to all that effort and finding him. He thought that his camera, lost at the bottom of the sea, had been lost to him forever.

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Over the Moon 

Paul and his wife were shocked by the news that their good old camera had found its way back to them after two years and that its card had defied the damage imposed by the ocean. The pictures taken all that time ago were secured as though they had been left in a doomsday bunker.

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Paul saw the pictures in their crystal clear quality. He could not help but laugh, telling his wife how lucky they were and how very happy it made him feel that something had been returned to him. It turns out that he’d lost a lot that year—in more ways than one.

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Retracing the Days Prior to the Shipwreck 

Paul explained that the group photos had all been taken during the casting ceremony for his departed mother’s ashes. His family had decided to spread her ashes in the sea. Paul had captured a few moments of the ceremony, before and after the casting.

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And the video that showed a mildly glowing moon over a serene sea was recorded just half an hour before the Bootlegger, his boat, had sunk, dragging the digital camera along with it towards the ocean floor. This all occurred while he was on his way back to his vacation home in Tahsis.

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All Chaos Broke Loose 

Riding the Bootlegger from Vancouver was a sort of release for Paul after the emotional rollercoaster of his mother’s death and the subsequent funeral. The freedom of the sea took his mind off the busy and hectic world. He was able to process his feelings out on the ocean.

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For the first time that week, he had found peace in the encompassing deep blue. He felt the moon’s glow touching his skin, a sort of smile he felt compelled to record with his camera. It was so calm that he thought, “What could be better than this?” Then, half an hour later, all chaos broke loose.

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Disaster Strikes

In an interview with ABC News, Professor Côté relayed that Paul sailed into the sea thinking he had the auto-pilot feature turned on. He was not only lost emotionally, but he was lost physically. At some point, his boat, the Bootlegger, hit a bunch of rocks.

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It was only at the last second that he realized things had gotten so wrong that he had been sailing without direction. He had to abandon his 9-meter boat. Half an hour before, he was sitting on the deck admiring the calmness of the ocean.

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Shipwrecked

Just when Paul thought things couldn’t get any worse for him, he was forced to abandon the Bootlegger in the middle of the night, in the freezing Vancouver weather. He had been emotional that whole week with family and friends. Now he was all alone and terrified. 

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After inspecting the shore he wound up on for six hours and taking occasional rests, Paul spotted an Inn high up on the bluff. Luckily, there were people inside at that hour, and they called up the Coast Guard for help. 

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The Morning After, Trying to Cope

Paul was safe and rested following his rescue, but what happened the night before still didn’t really sink in. He could have died, the Bootlegger was gone, and it all happened in the safest of nights that anyone could sail. He had been struck by an invisible force.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

They went back to where his boat had gone down, hoping to salvage what he could out of the wreckage. He found very little. The camera—that metallic brick that held so many memories with the family, including his mother’s funeral—had been swept by the current.

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The Real Story 

Solving the case of the mysterious camera gratified the university students, who’d gone all out to find its owner. Paul sometimes likes to hold the gadget firmly in his hands to ensure it all wasn’t just a dream. We can’t blame him.

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Image via Isabelle M Côté/Twitter

To Paul, it wasn’t really about the camera. It was about how he’d survived that night—how his world had been rocked more than once, how he’d almost lost everything, and how something of his past was returned to him out of the blue—literally.

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A Wonderful Ending to a Tragic Start

Finding the camera was a win-win situation for everyone. The students had their marine organisms to study and work on, and Paul got some of his memories back. The students were just glad to be able to deliver the camera from what was supposed to be a point of no return.

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Paul described it as a wonderful end to a tragic start. He was over the moon about it all. Before they sent the device, the students made sure to back up all his files so that he wouldn’t lose them while the package was in transit.

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