Four years after dropping its digital camera into the ocean from a Santa Cruz, Calif., wharf, a Texas family will be reunited with its photos, thanks to the dogged efforts of a California man and some social media savvy citizen detectives.
At the end of March, Peter Govaars, 46, took his children to Hidden Beach in Apotos, Calif., to see how the shore had been chewed up after a big storm left driftwood everywhere. As the kids built sandcastles, Govaars walked along, looking at his feet. Suddenly, something caught his eye.
He stooped down to pick it up and saw it was a camera memory card still stuck in the rusted camera port.
"I thought it was an amazing time capsule," Govaars said. "If it were me, I'd love to have those pictures back. There's nothing astonishing or amazing about the photos, but it all means something to that family."
Govaars, a computer engineer, took the card home and wrenched it out of the camera deck. When he tried to view the photos, the computer wouldn't read anything, but he didn't give up.
A software engineer, Govaars joked that he persisted like a "mad scientist tinkerer." He pried open the camera card with an Exacto knife, cleaned it out with rubbing alcohol and reassembled it. The effort paid off when he downloaded 104 photos taken over a two week span in June 2007.
Many of the photos were of a Latino family -- at the beach, at a birthday party, at a Burger King. The last photo on the card was a crooked shot of the water and the wooden beams supporting the wharf, presumably taken right before the camera fell into the water. One little girl, around 11 or 12 years old in the photos, appeared in many of the shots, and Govaars guessed it was her camera.
Govaars suddenly found himself confronted with "a mystery I didn't know how to go about solving."
He contacted his local newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and told the paper his story. Because of conflicting schedules, it was not until last Friday that Govaars could finally meet with a reporter from the paper. Over the weekend, he created a Flickr photostream called "DoYouKnowUs." Soon enough, people were commenting and sending suggestions for how to find the family.
"People got interested and ran with it and became investigators," Govaars said. "That's really what made the whole thing work."
One person zoomed in on one of the photos that had a car in it and found the license plate number. Another viewer did a reverse search and found an address that went with the plate number. Soon enough, a TV show took the address, found a phone number and called the family.
"The thing that is kind of scary is how easy it was to track them down," Govaars said. "It's kind of creepy."
Govaars said that, coincidentally, at roughly the same time, a relative of the Texas family had seen the story in the news and sent an email saying she knew the family.
The family did not want to be publicly identified, but Govaars' hunch was correct: The camera belonged to a little girl who is now a "giddy 17-year-old teenager" over the news of her lost camera, according to Govaars. Govaars has since spoken with the relative of the Texas family who emailed him, but not to the teenage girl.
The relative did leave a message on one of the Flickr photos under the handle TXprk saying: "Thanks, Peter, for being diligent in tracking down my family!!! We are grateful to you but also to the many people who have contributed -- never realized personal information was so easily attainable!!! My sister and cousin are two very giddy teenagers because they are now famous!!"
Govaars still has the camera card and is leaving it up to the family to decide whether it wants him to mail the card or whether it's interested in a reunion.
Humble about his deed and wary of all the attention, Govaars said, "I just tried to return something that belonged to someone else. I'm a little worried about the phrase, 'No good deed goes unpunished.'"