Forensics ventures beneath the waves
By Cornelia Reichert Read our blog about the problems encountered writing this feature. ON 22 MAY, a severed right foot washed up on Kirkland Island near Vancouver in British Columbia. Bizarrely, it was the fourth such grisly discovery along this part of the Canadian coast in recent months. In August 2007 two right feet were found on Gabriola and Jedediah islands, still wearing size 12 men’s running shoes. A third washed up on Valdez Island in February. Who the feet belonged to and how they met their fate is still unknown, and DNA tests have failed to come up with any matches in police databases. For forensic scientists this is an all-too-familiar story. It is not unusual for oceans around the world to disgorge mysterious human remains. Some are suicides, others the victims of swimming, boating or diving accidents. Still others are homicides, their bodies dumped in the ocean. Yet even when it is possible to identify the remains, there is often little that forensic medicine can say about how the victim died. For the bereaved relatives the uncertainty can be unbearable. “How did my son die? Did my girlfriend suffer? What happened to my loved one? These are the first questions that families and friends ask,” says Gail Anderson, a forensic entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. “They can’t begin grieving until they have the answers.” All too often she cannot give them any. Determining the time and cause of death of a body recovered from the sea is all but impossible. And that’s not all. Was it an accident or murder?