On a trip to Santa Cruz, California, in the summer of 2007 a 12-year-old girl from Texas dropped her digital camera off the pier.
But where this story really begins is almost four years later and six miles away following two particularly stormy days in March.
Peter Govaars and his daughter were beachcombing at Hidden Beach in Aptos, (340 miles north-west of Los Angeles), examining the debris washed ashore, when Peter noticed the skeleton of a camera under his feet with, remarkably, its memory card still attached.
With his father’s tinkering spirit in mind and his grandfather’s adage (translated from Dutch) of “you have ‘no’, you can always try for ‘yes’”, he decided to take the SD card home and see if the pictures could be recovered.
After a little care, and with the help of a craft knife, and some rubbing alcohol, Peter removed the chip from its plastic housing, cleaned off the corrosion and green slime, put it all back together and inserted the card into his computer.
“Lo and behold – the card appeared on my desktop and was readable,” Peter recalls.
The modern-day message in a bottle had, against all odds, given up its secrets after four years lost at sea.
“At that point the experience went from technical to emotional. I was excited that these lost photos were viewable, and immediately started to wonder about the people in the pictures.”
What he had discovered, and recovered, was around 100 images taken over a two-week period in June 2007. They featured a child’s birthday party, a Burger King meal, a trip to the beach, and finally, the Santa Cruz pier, where the camera’s owner had presumed her photographic memories lost forever.
In fact, the last photo on the card was a side-ways shot of a sea lion in the water – perhaps snapped just moments before the camera was dropped and began its remarkable journey.
Having come this far, Peter decided to try and reunite images and owner.
He set up a Flicker set featuring a handful of the images under the name ‘DoYouKnowUs’ and about a month ago sent an email to the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper. A reporter interviewed him on June 14th, and the story was published online on June 19th and in print on June 20th.
Then “everything just spread like wild-fire”, he says.
The story was picked up everywhere from New York, to the UK, to Brazil.
Amongst Flickr messages “blessing” Peter and his “good deed”, was a group of followers who took on the role of amateur investigative journalists.
“A small group of people took a strong interest in the story and each contributed a bit to solving the puzzle. My thanks go out to all of them,” Peter says.
“A few people were able to look up a name and address from a license plate in one of the photos. Another found the phone number for the name/address, but found it was disconnected.”
Then US news and entertainment program Inside Edition caught wind of the story, “did some magic and got in touch with the family in Texas by phone”.
“At roughly the same time, one of the owner’s cousins contacted me via email because she saw the story on a Bay Area news website,” he says.
In just a fraction of the time that the camera had been lost, its owner had been found, and the mystery solved.
“There was roughly a week of background work to put the initial story together, and then around two days for it to go viral and the crowd-sourced investigation to find the owner.
“The power of the internet is phenomenal. You can see it with this story, but more importantly in the reporting from places like Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Although this is not an earth-shattering event, this story was able to resonate with people, and it got picked up around the world in only two days time,” Peter says.
While he has yet to speak to the camera’s owner or her family, he has spoken on the phone with the owner’s cousin, who made contact through Flickr.
“She said her cousin that lost the camera was giddy about suddenly being famous, and was telling all her friends about it on Facebook.”
Peter says there is talk of Inside Edition arranging for the owner (who appears at the front in the above image) and her family to fly out for a TV reunion, “which looks like it may actually happen”.
Reflecting on the flurry of attention his story has brought this week, Peter said yesterday:
“I’m glad to get the card back to her. It’s a story she’ll be able to think back fondly about for the rest of her life. I know that when I go back through my own family photos, the pictures remind me of great stories about the times and places the pictures were taken. And that’s not even for pictures that were lost at sea for four years! I hope the same will be true for her, along with the follow-on story of all the media attention that surrounded it.”
Pictures courtesy of Peter Govaars and the camera’s owner