(June 1, 5:22 p.m. EDT) -- Could this be the modern-day equivalent of the message in a bottle?
Two weeks ago, on May 16, Cruise Critic member Aquahound, who lives in Florida's Key West, found a camera washed up on the rocks in a local marina. The camera, which was in a waterproof housing of the type used by scuba divers, was undamaged. The latest image on its memory card was dated November 11, 2009, which implied that it had been separated from its owner for more than six months.
Aquahound, a.k.a. Paul Shultz, just happens to be a criminal investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard and couldn't resist the challenge to identify the origins of the mysterious camera.
Yesterday, a combination of his own impressive ingenuity and the power of social media Web sites meant that he was able to locate the camera's owner -- in Aruba.
The plot, as it unravelled, involved undersea relics, hidden clues and even a curious sea turtle.
Shultz told Cruise Critic today that he started his investigation by searching for clues in two seemingly unrelated photos: two men in wetsuits stood in front of a van, on which half a logo was visible; and some children at a school, standing in front of a poster. "I went to a scuba diving Web site called Scubaboard.com and asked for help," Shultz told us today. "I wanted to know if anyone was aware of a dive company whose name ended in 'stage.com'. We had no luck at first. I also posted a picture of the kids at the school. Someone recognized the writing on the wall as Dutch. I did an Internet translation and found it to say 'The Great Cookbook of Schakel.' Searching the Internet, I found Schakel to be a school in Aruba."
Another clue pointed at Aruba: a diver entering the water in front of a resort-like building that Shultz found via Google Earth to be the Divi Aruba resort. Shultz also established from a picture of a child watching a Continental airplane that the aircraft, identifiable by its registration number, had been in Aruba on November 11.
Meanwhile, a member of scubaboard.com had identified stage.com as wereldstage.com, a company with a presence in Aruba.
Shultz continued: "E-mails to wereldstage and the Schakel school went unanswered, so I reached out to Cruise Critic. From there, I was led to another website -- Aruba.com -- by Cruise Critic member Arubalisa.
Ironically, though a cruise Web site helped lead Shultz to the camera's owners, they hadn't been visiting Aruba by ship.
"On Aruba.com, I met a woman named Julia. Julia recognized the family from the pictures I sent her. Her kids also go to the Schakel school. Julia met with the camera's owners, Dick and Mandy de Bruin. They confirmed they lost the camera on November 11, 2009 while working on recovering an anchor from a ship sunk during WWII. They were very excited to hear about me finding the camera and they are as amazed as I am about how far it floated."
Equally fascinating is the fact that sometime in January, a curious sea turtle came across the mysterious floating object and knocked it around in the water for a while, switching the camera on in the process. The resulting video, now posted on YouTube, could well make the turtle a star.
Why would Shultz go to so much trouble when most people would probably have kept the camera? "I took this on as a personal challenge because this case shows what can happen when people come together in an Internet forum and work to achieve a positive goal," said Shultz. "People tend to be a bit nasty on forums, but this is an example of the goodwill that exists in most. I cannot thank enough the good people of Cruise Critic, Scubaboard.com, and Aruba.com."
History could, in fact, have been repeating itself -- in February this year, a Spanish fisherman found a camera in his net that a South African couple had dropped accidentally from Queen Mary 2 in 2008, during a tandem sailing with QE2, which featured in the pictures. That camera, too, was eventually reunited with its owners.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor
Photo appears courtesy of Paul Shultz
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