The Curious Tale of the Salish Sea Feet

To date, 21 disembodied feet have washed up on the shores of Seattle’s Salish Sea. What at first looked like the work of a serial killer turned out to be something even more unsettling: A message from the ocean about who we are.

Kea Krause | LongreadsApril 2019| 16 minutes (3,905 words)

They come by way of similar discovery: A beachcomber, perhaps gathering shells or out for some exercise, spots a flashy, nonpelagic lump that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a human foot still nestled in its shoe. The feet, both lefts and rights, come in all sizes — sometimes wearing New Balance or Nike, occasionally a hiking boot, and sometimes still attached to leg bones, a tibia sticking out like a stake in the ground.

To the intrigue and often horror of Pacific Northwesterners, in 2007 feet began washing up along the shores of the Salish Sea, an inland ocean spanning nearly 500 miles from Olympia, Washington, the state’s capitol, to Desolation Sound, in British Columbia, Canada. Today the tally is 21 feet and counting (15 in BC, six in Washington). So prevalent are the gruesome discoveries that the BC coroner’s office has a map marked up with each new find: Foot #1 — a right — found in August 2007 floated up to Jedediah Island in a generic white sneaker with navy blue accents; Foot #5 in a muddy Nike; Foot #13 wore black with Velcro. New Year’s Day 2019 delivered the most recent foot, number 21, to a beach in Everett. It tumbled ashore in an aging boot, its condition indicating it had been out to sea for “some time,” according to local police.

A pattern of body parts washing ashore has all the trappings of a serial killer scenario or a horror movie or, in the very least, of an otherworldly phenomenon. Earned or not, the Pacific Northwest has a haunting prestige — the home of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, and Ted Bundy, and now also the land of Twilight’s Hollywood vampires in Forks, out on the peninsula. Some morbid element of the region has arrested our imaginations. It could be the skies: So gray and responsible for all the rain that keeps everything perennially damp. Or perhaps it’s the abundance of old-growth timber — plenty of dense and protected woods for stashing bodies. Rivers, branching across the state are another nature-made means of evidence disposal. It is rumored that Ridgway discarded the bodies of as many as 70 women around the Green River, 65 miles long descending from the Cascades and entering the Puget Sound just west of Seattle. In Washington State, geography and meteorology conspire to creep us out. But perhaps most lurid is the ocean itself, not just because it continues to spew body parts to its surface but also because of its infinite and perplexing nature. Its unknowability, though alluring to those in the script-writing business, has puzzled scientists and casual observers of the Sound for generations.

The southern portion of the Salish Sea is more familiarly known as Puget Sound, a body of water servicing the Seattle metropolitan area, home to about 3.8 million residents and plenty of industry — Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, among others — all luxuriously settled in one of America’s most beautiful and diverse oceanic ecosystems. Seattle is rainy and weird, a place for artists and musicians to brood beneath weather-pregnant clouds, an offbeat city for both the creative and outdoorsy, resting in a hammock between two mountain ranges. But recently the area has seen changes out of its control: The tech industry is expected to expand the population of the Salish Sea region to 9 million people in the coming decades and has wiped away many of the city’s distinctive traits. The former home of Kurt Cobain and birthplace of grunge now has a median home value of more than $700,000 and mostly functions to accommodate well-compensated tech workers. It’s still weird though — after all, feet keep floating ashore.

A pattern of body parts washing ashore has all the trappings of a serial killer scenario or a horror movie or, in the very least, of an otherworldly phenomenon.

Last fall, I went looking for a foot. More specifically, I went to Crane’s Landing on Whidbey Island — a refuge in Puget Sound just north of Seattle — where a foot had been found, looking to see if the beach would tell me anything about why the sea had dropped the foot there. Off the ferry, I drove a narrow roadway so starved of sunshine that moss grew along its centerline. It wound through a collection of homes that petered out down by the water in a dead end. The pebble beach comprised of mostly smooth skipping stones, was lined with a row of ragged pilings, head-high with rotted bases, the remnants of the landing that had been the beach’s namesake.

When you’re from Seattle, it’s almost routine to be dazzled by the macabre sagas of the sea. As a child, my favorite story was one my uncle told about a body floating up behind his live-aboard sailboat on Lake Union. The idea of that bloated body floated into my imagination and from there on out, when visiting my family on their sailboat, I would keep my eyes glued to the water in the event another poor soul should bob up to the surface for my discovery.

In his book Flotsametrics, the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer writes, “floating tales bracket human life in a fateful symmetry. Babies float into the world, and the dead return to their origins in the floating world.” And in between birth and death, humans have a tendency to cast many, many things into the sea, not least of all messages. As early as 310 BCE, humans were sending messages this way, some more poetic than others. In 1177, a poet named Yasuyori, banished to a remote island from Japan, engraved poems on pieces of wood and set them free in the ocean hoping they would reach his parents. Centuries of high-seas dispatches followed, with people filling bottles with messages of struggle, hope, and salvation. Religious operations would set advertisements for free Bibles adrift, hoping to reach those ready to receive. In the summer of 1954, the Irish beer company Guinness dropped more than 50,000 bottles containing the message of their dark and delicious ale into the sea hoping to entice drinkers abroad and instead finding an audience in oceanographers who are still discovering the bottles today and using them to study Atlantic currents.

But bodies, not bottles, have provided some of the oldest forms of oceanographic data, and the parts that have and continue to wash up on the shores of the Salish Sea carry information as well. Beyond the forensic, the feet send a message: To love the ocean is to accept the death that accompanies it, and to study it is to embrace mystery as the center of your practice. Beachcombers aren’t necessarily bored or aimless. They are active ambassadors — listening to the sea’s many messages.

To love the ocean is to accept the death that accompanies it.

Through his newsletter Beachcombers’ Alert!, which has a respectable circulation that he estimates is between 500 and 600, Ebbesmeyer has kept subscribers abreast to those messages since 1996. A couple years prior, in a storm in the Pacific Ocean, a tanker lost a container overboard holding more than 28,000 bath toys (ducks, frogs, turtles, and beavers). The toys, designed to float, took to the sea, mostly landing on the shores of Oregon and Washington, but some traveled as far as Alaska. The ducks, frogs, beavers, and turtles continued to beach themselves for the next 16 years. Beachcombers’ Alert! catalogues everything from wayward Legos to whale blubber in its dispatches, as well as tracking gyres, tides, and storms. It is important work. Beachcombers’ treasures have long provided scientists with excellent ocean data, and it has been mostly beachcombers, like myself that day at Crane’s Landing, in search of something a little more forensic than a rubber ducky, that tend to find disembodied feet.

Ebbesmeyer has spent a large portion of his career studying the Salish Sea, which is one of the world’s largest inland oceans and the second biggest estuary in the United States. It is an international body of water shared across the Canada–United States border, zigzagging through a mess of islands, and is also home to more than 60 tribes and First Nations. Any tanker carrying coal and fossil fuels to Asia from the Dakotas, the Pacific Northwest, and the western provinces of Canada must make the passage through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the canal that provides access to the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean.

The location that makes this body of water so economically important is also what makes it so fragile. The sea is home to at least 298 fish and mammal species, including the Orcas — a specific pod or family of them, who, as an index species, tend to be able to tell the entire story of the health of a body of water. In the summer of 2018, an orca from the J-Pod carried her dead calf around the Salish Sea for at least 17 days during what appeared to be a period of grieving. It became clear that the Sea itself was ailing as well.  

The Salish Sea is encountering similar fates as other bodies of water that had the misfortune of attracting humans, such as New York Harbor or the San Francisco Bay. It is facing ocean acidification: when carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, which is responsible for putting more stressors on herring embryos. The extra stress, which is hypothesized to be twice as bad in seagrass habitats, can increase deformities in larvae and lower herring populations, which could have a ripple effect threatening other animal populations that rely on the fish for food. Hypoxia is slowly starving the water (and therefore the fish population) of oxygen, upsetting the fine estuarine balance of the inland ocean, and creating dead zones where life ceases to thrive. An invasive species of green crab has taken up residence in the waters of Puget Sound. There are algae blooms, sewage and fecal pollution, unwelcome jellyfish.


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And then there are the salmon. There has been a massive decline in salmon — arguably the cornerstone of the Salish Sea ecosystem — returning to spawn in recent years, for which scientists, despite their efforts and international coalitions, can’t really account. When I recently visited the Ballard Locks, where boats and fish alike can travel from saltwater to fresh, and which features an underwater fish ladder where you can view the salmon returning from the Pacific to spawn, I was disappointed to see only a few stragglers heading back upstream. As a child, I watched hordes of fish climb the ladder, clinging and pushing their way back home to the river beds from which they were born. It now appeared to be an empty highway.

The sea also faces nature-made obstacles. And one in particular that contributes to the ecological unraveling, specific to the Salish Sea, that I learned about speaking with Hal Mofjeld, an oceanographer and professor at the University of Washington. “There’s also what’s called reflux, in which pollutants may be headed out of the region but they’ll go to a mixing site … and get mixed with the water that’s flowing near the bottom back into Puget Sound. And that brings the contaminants back in as well” he told me, describing a place-specific cycle, one helping trap and circulate pollutants in the Salish Sea. “So it’s because of a limited exchange and reflux, you have a tendency to retain contaminants in the region and then that affects the ecosystem and issues of possible human health.” Not being an oceanographer, or even a scientist myself, I did wonder when getting off the phone if reflux could also be a contributing factor to the feet — it would be a neat and tidy explanation for an open question.

An orca carried her dead calf around the Salish Sea for at least 17 days during what appeared to be a period of grieving. It became clear that the Sea itself was ailing as well.

The pursuit of information about the Salish Sea has been undertaken with a scientific strenuousness also specific to the region. The University of Washington’s school of oceanography is the top-ranked in the world on some lists, with scientists creating forecasting models similar to the ones we use to monitor the weather, traveling out to sea on research vessels, and teaching course loads of marine biology and geology and physics. The school essentially lives on a lab with the Salish Sea so close, but the ocean still won’t reveal everything about itself, even to its most devoted practitioners. A black box is a fantastic subject for study, especially when the science is also ever-evolving. “I mean, the broad-brush behavior in terms of air currents and the tides are known and they’re an integral part of the numerical models that are in place to basically study right processes,” said Mofjeld. But oceanography is a young science, and Mofjeld was quick to point out that the work being done was only as good as the instruments and models being used to do it. “You know, there’s some things that can really surprise you though, in terms of discovery,” he explained. “So is it always good not to think that well, we’ve solved the problem, we know all there is to know.”

Believing we know everything there is to know can cause blind spots in Western science. It may be difficult, for example, when you live in downtown Seattle and work for a tech company, to appreciate that gentle supervision of the land around us is essential to survival. “Because we don’t rely on the land, we are slow to react to what we see as threats,” Nancy Turner, a professor of ethnoecology at the University of Victoria explained about the disconnect between the science of climate change and the governance of our society. But this cognitive dissonance is a construct of colonial thinking and relatively new to a region that’s been inhabited by the Coast Salish people for thousands of years.

“Every bit of this sea is who the Coast Salish people are. There are those who carry the spirit of the yellow grass. There are those who carry the spirits of the octopus, those who carry the spirits of the seal,” Debra Lekanoff, the Swinomish government affairs director, told me. “We carry in our love for the Salish Sea all the way throughout our biome.” As Lekanoff put it, “It’s a different way of thinking and decision-making that other societies may not use, but it’s what we use.”

Lekanoff continued: “This why when you see Indigenous people working so hard to take care of their homelands and the waters. It’s because they truly believe that if you take care of Mother Earth, she’ll take care of you. When she’s sick, when she’s dying, you yourself as a person intertwined within her resources, will also lose that.”  What it boils down to is “knowledge and information that is based on close proximity to what’s happening” on the land and in the ocean — essentially generations of fieldwork — that defines the values of the First Nations, the Coast Salish among them, and that could be useful in Western scientific studies of the Salish Sea itself.

All this is why scientists in the Pacific Northwest have begun collaborating with the First Nations and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into their own studies. According to Turner, TEK is a system of knowledge, practice, and belief passed from one generation to the next through cultural transmission; it’s the most necessary practical information a group of people needed to know when they moved into an area: What was edible and what was poisonous, for example. A trail map for immediate survival. Naturally, this information was procured, developed, and catalogued by the original groups of people in the region, the First Nations.

“We often try to compare Western science and Indigenous knowledge. But it’s not quite a fair comparison, because the science is part of a whole sum of academic knowledge,” Turner told me. “If you think about a university and what they offer in the way of learning and teaching, they have philosophy, they have education, they have history, they have language and art and they encompass a much broader range of topics than just what are traditionally called the sciences and Indigenous knowledge systems tend to incorporate all of those different elements that you would find, say, at a university.”

‘Because we don’t rely on the land, we are slow to react to what we see as threats.’

Nonetheless, traditional ecological knowledge is making its way into more academic settings, starting with the Salish Sea Institute at Western Washington University.  “It doesn’t make sense for us to do any work without considering the historical perspective from the tribes and the current perspective from the tribes,” director Ginny Broadhurst told me. “You can’t really look at one piece of this without looking at the whole.” The institute, still in its infancy, is a new program at the university that combines Western sciences and TEK in a concentration devoted to the health of the Salish Sea. Regarding the inclusion of TEK with Western science, Broadhurst said, “It’s not how do you do it, it’s how could you do it without it? What the Western world has sort of done too much is think that we know everything and don’t need to ask others, and we just proceed and we do that to own detriment with blinders on.” The program is one of the first of its kind, but it is building on a 30-year history of collaboration of First Nations and regional scientists.

This partnership has produced some remarkable projects. For example, starting in 2008, the Coast Salish partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey on a collaboration called the Tribal Journey Water Quality Project (TJWQP). It’s hard to sample water quality in a motor-propelled boat because turbulence muddies the water, but the Sea has a massive surface area of more than 18,000 square miles. Many Coast Salish canoe families travel every year by cedar boat through the waters of the Sea in a tradition that is part travel, part celebration. They take the journey over several weeks, ending at a rotating host tribe’s land. It is the largest canoe journey in the United States on one of the biggest bodies of water. Because the quality of the water was important to both parties, a plan was hatched: A USGS scientist would ride in each of the six canoes on the journey and take samples along the way. The motorless canoe would leave the water undisturbed and the trip itself would cover much of the Sea — it was the perfect pairing. Despite its elaborate acronym, the project was elegant in its simplicity.

“For Coast Salish, for years their science has been watching the waters,” said Lekanoff. “They know when the salmon come. They know when the frogs come. They know when the berries come. They know when to harvest. They know how much to harvest. And this was all shared in ceremony.” The project was met with unanimous approval by the Coast Salish and green-lit. “There was no misconception of my ideas are better, my science is better. There was always 100 percent of hey let’s try this. No let’s try that. Hey yeah, that works. It was always a collaboration. We never had to battle our way through anything,” said Lekanoff, who played an integral in the project representing the Swinomish.

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As my reporting for this story wore on, I began to realize that one of the best ways to show that you care about something was to learn everything there is to know about it. Be it a beach or the feet that keep washing up on it, knowledge is the way to make stewardship the heart of your mission. The ocean, a fluid and enigmatic place, makes that hard. The inscrutability of the Salish Sea, lovely and curious as it is, keeps families up at night, wondering if the latest foot belongs to a loved one. Water, in its inaccessibility, obscures so much reason: We still don’t know why the salmon aren’t coming back or why the orca known as J-35, or Tahlequah, carried the corpse of her dead calf around with her for 17 days last summer. Stewardship of the Salish Sea involves studying its many deaths and the feet of humans who died on its shores.

Last fall, I called Andy Watson of the BC coroner’s office. He pointed out the auspicious timing of our conversation: Another foot had just been discovered. It was early November and the newest foot, wearing a grey Nike, one of those lightweight designs with the woven fabric that almost makes them look as if they are a shoe-shaped knitted sweater, had not yet been matched to a missing person. It had been a few weeks and the foot protocol of DNA testing and database searching had been initiated.

Experts may not know why feet continue to wash ashore, but they can rule some things out: The feet are not the work of a serial killer, nor are they flotsam from a plane crash. A Reddit thread on the matter is a tangle of speculators, who find just about everything about the anomaly fishy, and naysayers who want to litigate the cold, hard facts. From a study on the fate of pig carcasses in water conducted by Gail Anderson of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, we know that in the ocean, feet tend to disarticulate from bodies, and since they are inside floatation devices like tennis shoes, will float on tides toward shore. And though the study begins with “the fate of a human body in water is not well understood,” Anderson assured me that the feet were a perfectly natural phenomenon: “It has been happening for years and will continue to happen.”

Only 10 of the 15 feet have been identified and linked to missing persons, but they are “no reason for public concern,” Watson from the coroner’s office told me. Instead, they are the unfortunate side effect of the disappeared: Most feet, upon discovery, are generally matched to missing persons reports providing sad but necessary closure to loved ones. It is not unusual for the body part of a missing person to eventually wash to shore, but what is unaccounted for is the abundance and proximity — why the Salish Sea and why now? “It seems like this is fairly unique to the British Columbia coastline. I certainly haven’t heard of this phenomenon happening in other areas. That’s not to say it hasn’t. But it seems very specific to where we are,” Watson explained. “It’s just another phenomenon that’s interesting about our coast and the Pacific Northwest, and another thing that just makes us unique and in a different place to live.”

In one of the the most recent foot discoveries, the Salish Sea had once again produced a talisman heralding the latest iteration of old news: We still, after thousands of years, are figuring out the ocean. The shoe was the lacing type and seemed like a more recent model of Nike, which Watson suggested could be one of their only clues. “It does prompt our interest because it does look a little bit newer and at this stage. It’s probably a left foot,” he told me, listing the limited but established facts. “And that’s all the information we have right now.”

There is very little comfort to be found in a mystery, especially when it revolves around a missing person, whose final moments and whereabouts may never be known. But the facts have begun to add up, starting with some very concrete ones. It’s hard to know anything with certainty when it comes to the ocean — but one thing is clear: When millions of people live by the sea, they die by it, too.

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Kea Krause’s work has appeared in The AtlanticThe BelieverLapham’s Quarterly, The Catapult, Broadly, VICE, and The Rumpus, among other outlets. Her piece, “What’s Left Behind,” was anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 and The Best American Travel Writing 2016

Kea holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. She was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

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Editor: Kelly Stout
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross