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Found: The Owner of the Camera That Recorded Its Own Disappearance

A reunion after hundreds of miles and months at sea.

Roland Spreer, right, returned William Etherton's lost camera.
Roland Spreer, right, returned William Etherton’s lost camera. Christian Charisius/dpa via AP

Last weekend, 10-year-old William Etherton, from England, landed with his family on Süderoog, one of a cluster of islands off Germany’s western edge. He had come to celebrate with Roland Spreer, his son Holger Spreer, and Holger’s partner Nele Wree—the tiny island’s only human inhabitants, who had prepared almond cakes and coffee for the occasion—and to claim something he’d lost months before, and hundreds of miles away.

On a bright blue afternoon in September, Etherton brought a video camera to record his adventures at Thornwick Bay in Yorkshire, on England’s east coast. He grinned into the lens, then got down to beachy business, dumping bucketfuls of water on the algae-slicked rocks, and parading around the slippery surfaces. Eventually, he wandered off, leaving the camera to fend for itself as the tide swept in. The waves gurgled, sent algae lurching, and toppled the camera from its perch.

We know all of this because, as my colleague Cara Giaimo wrote last month, the camera kept recording as it spiraled through the water, capturing a kaleidoscope of aquatic plants wriggling and churning beneath the waves. It floated for hundreds of miles, and washed ashore on Süderoog. Thanks to a waterproof case, the memory card survived the journey—so when Roland Spreer intercepted it, the camera recited its journey and clues about its rightful owner.

Orphaned finds tumble ashore all the time, on Süderoog and elsewhere. On Facebook, Holger Spreer and Wree document the haul they regularly harvest from the waves: everything from waterlogged wooden pallets to disposable razors and the occasional wrinkled mylar balloon. But the orphaned camera struck a particular nerve.

The plucky little mystery had legs: The Guardian jumped on it, as did BBC. The couple uploaded a video of the camera’s vanishing act, and the footage has racked up 275,000 views. According to the AP, the stories wound their way to the boy’s father—and, eventually, that’s how the camera found its way home, too.

Holger Spreer and Wree chalk this reunion up to the power of the internet politic, which loves a good mystery. The story “could only come to a happy end because you were all so committed and you were looking for the owner of the camera with us,” they wrote on Facebook. “Really fascinating what you can do with the technology today.”

In addition to the English visitors, the new year also brought a flood to the island, with water surging about a meter higher than usual. The couple’s latest video chronicles waves jostling a boat and frothing on the shore. There’s no news yet on any fresh mysteries that may have bobbed along—but if one does wash up, chances are good that the internet’s sleuths will swoop in to help solve it.