Undersea sleuthing

Undersea sleuthing

May 6, 2009

When British Columbia coroners were looking for clues about the human feet that washed ashore near Vancouver in 2008, they called forensic entomologist Gail Anderson at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. Anderson knows what happens to body parts once flesh and cartilage have been eaten away by sea creatures — after all, she’s seen it live.

Over the past eight years, Anderson has submerged pig carcasses into the ocean near Victoria and, using the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea (VENUS), has watched live what happens to the carcasses between 100 and 300 metres below.

VENUS, a one-of-a-kind underwater observatory based at the University of Victoria, streams physical, chemical and biological data to the Internet from several locations in Saanich Inlet and the Strait of Georgia. With its myriad data readily available for viewing on the Web, VENUS has become invaluable for scientists documenting our complex and fluctuating western coastal waters.

But for Anderson, one of many VENUS users, the system is revolutionizing marine forensics. It records when and how a pig carcass, similar to a human torso, is scavenged by crabs, sharks and other creatures. The results could, for example, help pinpoint the time of death in a police investigation.

“It’s the one question I get asked by police,” she says. “What happens to a body in water? Well, now I can tell them. I can show them. I can tell them how they should be recovering a body and what they should be looking for. It’s entirely practical.”