Imagine yourself taking a romantic, peaceful walk along the beach in British Colombia. The sound of a seagull’s cry is echoing in your ear, and a cool breeze sends goosebumps up your skin while the sun simultaneously cooks you from above. You pull in your significant other for an intimate embrace when you spot something floating along the ocean’s shore. Is it a clam holding a pearl inside? Or maybe it’s a message in a bottle from a dreamer across the world. You walk up closer, squinting through the sun’s rays, and your eyes finally adjust to the image bobbing up and down in the salt-coated water. Horror rushes through you like a crashing wave when you realize what it is: it’s a dismembered foot, still inside of a running shoe.
It all sounds like a haunting summer day dream, but since 2007 the scenario has been a reality across the coast of the Salish Sea. At least 16 severed feet, tucked inside of hiking and running shoes, have washed ashore in places like Canada and Washington. Most of the feet have been right feet, and several of the findings belong to men.
The first severed foot was found on August 20, 2007. It was a right foot, size 12, in a shoe made in India. Authorities were able to link the foot to a male who suffered from depression, concluding he most likely committed suicide in or near water.
One foot found between 2007 and 2011 was attributed to a man who had disappeared 25 years earlier. And, on May 22, 2008, the right foot of a female was found in the waters of Kirkland Island in British Colombia. It was the fourth dismembered foot to wash ashore in just a year, and the first one belonging to a woman.
The number of discovered severed feet tucked inside running shoes continued to grow each year. In 2009, the eighth foot was found inside of a Nike shoe. On August 26, 2010, a ninth foot was found in the Puget Sound in Washington. It was also a right foot, believed to belong to a woman or child.
This year a foot was found in British Colombia, wearing a hiking shoe made in 2013. Investigators concluded the shoe belonged to an individual who disappeared or died between 2013 and December 2015.
While feet continued to mysteriously appear on beaches across the Pacific Ocean, it caught the attention of tourists and beach goers. People began looking for feet, hoping to make a grisly discovery.
The popularity of the phenomenon brought forth pranksters who decided to create hoaxes. On June 18, 2008, someone placed bones from an animal’s paw inside of a sock within a sneaker in the Campbell River. Then in 2012 someone put flesh and bones inside child-size shoes, prompting Victoria, B.C. police to investigate disappearances of children in the area. As it turns out, the bones and flesh weren’t human.
Barbara McLintock of the coroner’s office spoke with The Guardian about the hoaxes, explaining, “We’ve had people put dog foot skeletons in runners and leave them on the beach…and somebody even used old chicken bones.”
Putting the hoaxes aside, many people grew concerned about the severed feet findings. Was a serial killer at play, using the ocean to dump his bodies? Had the feet come from bodies of plane crash victims, or maybe the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Asia? Some theorists believed the mob was using the Canadian shoreline to dispose bodies of people who had crossed them.
But, why were they all wearing hiking shoes or sneakers? And, why did the sudden influx of discoveries only start in 2007?
The answer: improved shoe design technology.
Forensic expert Gail Anderson told Buzzfeed Canada, “Something you’ll notice is that the only feet washing up are in running shoes…they’re not washing up in stilettos or sandals, or as bare feet.”
Anderson explained that the air pockets inside of the shoes allow for the shoe and foot to eventually float up to the surface, “It’s basically a floatation device, so it’s going to hold it all together and get it washed ashore.”
Kathy Taylor, who works for the King County Medical Examiner’s Office where the most recent foot was discovered, explained that the foot likely detached from the body as it decomposed at sea. As the body sits in the ocean, it’s picked apart by fish and other sea life, while the feet stay safe inside the person’s shoes.
She explained, “The bones fall apart…They are not being severed. They’re not being purposely cut off.”
While many like to believe something more sinister is responsible for the dismembered feet, authorities have continued to explain that the feet are most likely from accidents or suicide. No foul play is suspected in any of the cases, and nothing has suggested otherwise.
Anderson explained to the Daily Beast, “All of the ones who’ve been identified so far, there’s no mystery… these people were very depressed, unhappy about life, and were last seen heading toward the water. People jump off bridges. They deliberately wish to disappear.”
But, as the evidence has shown, you can never fully disappear in the ocean. We all float on.