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Canada’s Severed Feet: Severed Feet Washing Ashore in the Pacific Northwest

The first severed foot washed up in the Pacific Northwest 16 years, 3 months, and 18 days ago.

There are a lot of strange tales and unsolved mysteries out there, but perhaps one of the oddest is the case of Canada’s severed feet, as it’s come to be known in the online community. It sounds like a bad folk tale, but I assure you that this mystery is a real one.

The mystery started in 2007 when a girl found a foot in a sneaker washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Since then, twenty more feet in sneakers have been found, with some washing ashore on the United States’ side. Some feet are left feet, some are right feet. Some are female, and some are male.

One of the sneakers with a human foot inside that washed ashore on Vancouver Island.
One of the sneakers with a human foot inside that washed ashore on Vancouver Island (CTV Vancouver Island).

Obviously, there are a lot of questions about the washed-up feet phenomena. Why are a bunch of severed feet turning up? Who are the people that these feet belonged to? Why have no other parts of their bodies been found?

The theories about why the feet washed up range from the plausible to the fantastical, depending on who you ask. Some speculate that these feet come from people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while others say they’re from plane crash victims or are the result of human trafficking, or even due to alien abductions. (Some of the theories are really strange.)

So, why are disarticulated feet washing up in the PNW? Is it really due to some serial killer with a foot fetish? Or is there a more plausible and less-terrifying explanation that can explain this odd situation?

Table of Contents

Origination of the Severed Feet

The mystery of Canada’s severed feet began on August 20, 2007 when a girl spotted a blue and white Adidas sneaker on the shoreline of Jedediah Island (an island between British Columbia and Vancouver Island). When she looked inside the shoe, she was horrified to discover that it was not empty. Rather, it contained the decaying remains of male’s right foot.

Six days later, on August 26, another size 12 sneaker with a decaying right foot inside washed up, but it was a Reebok. It was found on Gabriola Island, roughly 30 miles to the southeast.

Two [washed-up feet] being found in such a short period of time is quite suspicious,” said Corporal Gary Cox of the Oceanside Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP). But that was just the beginning of washed-up feet in the Salish Sea.

About the Salish Sea

For years since the original two were discovered, many more severed feet have washed up in the Salish Sea area, a region encompassing inland waterways in the PNW. The Salish Sea includes the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Desolation Sound, and Puget Sound.

A map of the Salish Sea.
A map of the Salish Sea (Washington Nature).

The convoluted system of inland waterways has a vast coastline stretching over 4,600 miles (7,470 km). The maximum depth of the Salish Sea is a staggering 2,132 feet (650 m), and the area contains 419 islands. The area is rich in wildlife both above and below the waves, including thousands of different species of invertebrates (this is relevant later).

The Salish Sea is also a cold water environment with a mean water temperature of 50°F (10°C) throughout the year. In water that cold, hypothermia is a real concern. According to the United States Coast Guard, falling into water of 50°F can result in hypothermia in under an hour.

Was a Plane Crash to Blame?

Originally, with just two feet found ashore, some suggested that these feet came from those who’d died in a 2005 plane crash near Quandra Island. It was thought that their bodies were mostly eaten away by the invertebrates that lived in the Salish Sea, with the shoes and feet eventually floating up to the surface due to the buoyancy of modern sneakers.

This theory sounded plausible, but then more and more feet started washing up through the years. Five men died in the plane crash near Quandra Island, but there have been a total of 21 feet that have washed ashore in the PNW as of writing this. Basic math tells you that there have to be other reasons that the feet are washing ashore.

More Feet Washed Up

As the years went by, more and more feet washed up in the Salish Sea. In 2008, five more feet turned up, some female and some male, some right feet and some left feet. Since the first foot was found in 2007, twenty more feet have washed ashore in various places in the Salish Sea, bringing the total to 21 feet found.

A map of the locations where roughly 20 severed feet have washed ashore since 2007.
A map of the locations where roughly 20 severed feet have washed ashore since 2007 (British Columbia Coroners Service).

Several of these severed feet have washed up on the United States’ side of the border, currently numbering six. These feet were also investigated, although few been matched to missing people.

Hoaxers Set Out Some Fake Feet

The string of feet that washed up led some pranksters to try and replicate the phenomena, putting animal paws in shoes and leaving them for someone to find. Law enforcement has warned that they will prosecute people who attempt pranks and hoaxes regarding the washed-up feet.

However, that hasn’t deterred all pranksters. A foot found in June 2008 on Vancouver Island ended up being a “skeletonized animal paw” put in a sock and shoe. Later, in 2011, other sneakers were discovered with raw meat inside them near Oak Bay Beach, British Columbia.

Whose Feet Are These?

The last sneaker and foot combination turned up in 2019, so there’s been a several-year hiatus on the severed feet washing ashore. Regardless, law enforcement wants to find out who these feet belong to. While some of the feet have been matched to missing persons, others have yet to be identified.

Two of the severed feet that washed up onshore.
Two of the severed feet that washed up onshore (Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

DNA Analysis Provides Some Answers

Some of the feet were able to be DNA-tested for clues as to who they belonged to. The first foot that was found on Jedediah Island was eventually linked to a man who had been missing since 2004. He’d reportedly been suffering from depression, so authorities thought it was likely he’d jumped off a nearby bridge and drowned. (If you’re struggling yourself, please reach out for help.)

One of the New Balance feet was tied to a woman who’d also jumped off a bridge. Her other foot was eventually found as well, washing up in the Fraser River on November 11, 2008. The original foot was found on May 22, 2008, several months earlier.

A foot found on November 4, 2011 was matched to a fisherman who went missing way back in 1987 named Stefan Zahorujko. The 65-year-old had been fishing alone on Sasamat Lake when it’s believed that his boat capsized, resulting in his death. One of his feet apparently washed up some 24 years later, when it was found in 2011.

The last of the severed feet to wash up was found on January 1, 2019, and has been identified as belonging to Antonio Neill, a 22-year-old man who’d been missing since December 2016. In Neill’s case, the family believes that foul play was involved. That case remains unsolved to this day.

A photograph of Antonio Neill, who remains missing.
A photograph of Antonio Neill, who remains missing (People).

Many More Feet Remain Unidentified

While some of the feet have been identified and explained, the majority of them have not. Only 9 out of the 21 feet have been positively linked to someone, leaving the rest of them unidentified. I’ve put together a chart so it’s easier to see all of the findings:

A chart of all of the missing feet that have so far washed up in the Salish Sea.
A chart of all of the missing feet that have so far washed up in the Salish Sea.

From what we know of the identified feet, it seems that many of them have come from people who took their own life. It’s believed that most of the feet separated from their corpses as a natural process via decomposition. Scientists have been studying the process to see if this can explain the mystery of the washed-up feet.

Theories on the Severed Feet

Due to the strangeness of this case, there are many, many theories about why the multitude of feet have washed up. There are theories about all of the feet being the result of a serial killer with a foot fetish, human traffickers, or drug dealers. Some even suggest that aliens or perhaps narco-submarines — that is, submarines smuggling in drugs — might have something to do with the disarticulated feet.

Since the first foot was discovered back in 2007, scientists have been debating and testing theories about why the feet are washing up onshore. A few claim to have found the answers, while others remain skeptical.

A Scientific Answer to the Severed Feet

A study conducted in 2007 by forensic scientist Gail Anderson of Simon Fraser University may provide some more insight into the mystery of the severed feet. Using pig carcasses in the Salish Sea, she examined the effects of sea life and decomposition on the remains. Remarkably, she discovered that the creatures on the sea floor can strip a carcass in as little as four days.

Some of the pig carcasses being prepared for decomposition testing on the ocean floor.
Some of the pig carcasses being prepared for decomposition testing on the ocean floor (PLOS One).

It’s suggested that because our ankles are made up of mostly soft tissue, the sea creatures were able to eat the area around the ankles easily and the feet floated to the surface, buoyed by tennis shoes. Then, because of the currents in the Salish Sea area, the feet have washed up onshore in number due to tides, currents, and winds.

The Result of Decomposition

Contrary to popular TV and movie programs where you see drowned people floating, people who die by drowning tend to sink as their lungs fill with water. Add on the weight of soaked clothing and shoes, and the majority of people will sink. It’s only later, when gasses that are produced by decomposition build up, that bodies will again float to the surface.

Some have suggested that many of these severed feet are drowning victims that ended up decomposing under the waves. Their feet ended up being somewhat protected and preserved by the sneakers, which then ended up washing ashore. And, because the waters of the PNW are exceptionally cold, the feet did not decay as quickly as they otherwise might have.

Not “Severed” Feet

Forensic anthropologist Laura Yazedjian, a human identification specialist for the British Columbia Coroners Service, says that using the term “severed” is an inaccurate picture. She explained that saying the feet were severed implies that they were somehow cut off from the bodies, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

From what scientists can tell, the feet detached from the bodies due to decomposition, not because they were cut off with a knife or other sharp object. Rather than severed, they are disarticulated or detached from the corpses.

Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island where one of the feet was discovered.
Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island where one of the feet was discovered (The Sun).

What About Other Floating Feet?

If the feet are indeed due to decomposing bodies of suicide, boating, or murder victims, then shouldn’t they wash up all over the world? Not necessarily, according to Parker MacCready of the University of Washington.

MacCready built a 3D ocean current simulator specifically for the PNW region and uses it to determine where oil spills might wash up. However, the model was also used to help answer the case of the washed-up feet. There are three main reasons the feet tend to be found in the Salish Sea area:

  1. The large, complex inland Salish Sea acts as a natural trap for anything that might float.
  2. The prevailing winds winds push debris into the area rather than blowing it out to sea. Anything floating on the surface of the ocean is likely to be blown to the shore by the prevailing winds.
  3. People tend to wear sneakers to the beach in the PNW because of cold conditions. More feet in sneakers, more chances for accidents, more feet washed ashore — so the logic goes.

The Salish Sea is a perfect trap for all the flotsam, jetsam, and tennis shoe-clad feet that the ocean washes up. And, with more people wearing buoyant sneakers in the area, there’s a better chance that their feet will float up to the surface once they’ve decayed enough to separate from the body versus if they’d been wearing a different type of shoe.

Case Closed?

If we know that the washed-up feet are largely due to suicides and accidents resulting in decomposition, why is the situation still viewed suspiciously? Science can largely prove how the feet are ending up where they are, but not necessarily why they end up there. “It is creepy. I guess that’s the fascination,” says Richard Thompson, an oceanographer from the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island.

Questions Remain

I think a lot of the enduring mystery in this case is that there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered. Despite having the “answer” to the disarticulated foot phenomenon, we still don’t know how all these people met their tragic ends. Some of them committed suicide, and at least one might’ve been murdered, but what about all the others?

A beach on Whidbey Island, an island where one of the washed-up feet was found.
A beach on Whidbey Island, an island where one of the washed-up feet was found (USGS).

Possible Children’s Feet Found

The two feet found in 2010 could have been children’s feet, which would rule suicide largely out of the realm of explanation for them. The foot found on August 27, 2010 was very small and thought to have belonged to either a small woman or a child. It was believed to have been in the water for less than two months.

Another foot found on December 5, 2010 is also small and believed to be a child’s foot. It was inside a boy’s Ozark Trail brand hiking boot, size 6. Although we don’t know for sure, evidence seems to point that this was a child’s foot.

Authorities in Canada have stated that there is no evidence of foul play, but that isn’t very reassuring for those of us who want to know how potential children’s feet ended up stuck in sneakers and washed onshore. Neither foot found in 2010 has been identified, although authorities are reportedly still searching for DNA matches.

The Future of the Feet

Ultimately, the mystery of the floating feet wouldn’t be so mysterious if we had an answer for all of the feet that have washed up onshore: who, when, why, and how they ended up where they did. Perhaps future advances in DNA technology will be able to tell us who the rest of the feet belong to, but DNA can’t tell us why they ended up in the water. After all, it’s all but impossible to tell a cause or manner of death just from a disarticulated foot.

A lot of these feet will most likely go unidentified and the cases will remain cold, unfortunately. It’s the nature of only having a small piece of a body left to work with; there isn’t much evidence to go off of. More answers may come in the future… and perhaps more washed-up feet, too.

Cold Case Questions

  • Do you believe the explanation about Canada’s severed feet? Or is there another explanation?
  • What do you find most interesting about the severed foot phenomena?

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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