Couple's 25th wedding anniversary photos survive 15 months in sea, are returned by fisherman

Amid the flotsam of daily life -- money woes, laundry, screaming children -- it's hard to believe in miracles. But they do happen.

When he hauled his heavy nets out of the chilly gray Atlantic Ocean several weeks ago Spanish fisherman Benito Estevez spotted a corroded Nikon digital camera peeking out from among the cod and seaweed.

But inside the $300 camera -- which drifted underwater for 15 months at the whim of deep water currents, first in the Bay of Biscay north of Spain and then into the open ocean south of Ireland -- Estevez found a fully intact memory card with 175 pictures and 10 video clips.

The clear-as-day pictures showed a dark-haired woman in a black cardigan posing in profile on the deck of a cruise ship with the Queen Elizabeth 2 in the background and a gentlemen wearing a red-and-blue-striped stocking cap emblazoned with "Oxford" smiling in the afternoon sun.

A bewildered Estevez also found snapshots of the woman standing in front of a statue of an over-sized metal bull and the gray-haired man leaning against a railing in front of an enormous park surrounded by skyscrapers with a map and spectacles peeking out of his pocket.

Who were these people? And could he find them? Estevez turned to his friend and cruising enthusiast, Fernando Garcia, for help.

Garcia posted a message on a cruising blog "Hello, I am a fisherman and recently I have found a digital camera at the sea bottom," it began. "The camera is totally damaged by the sea water, but "miraculously" the photos and the videos on the "SD Memory" are totally O.K," it went on, saying that "Mauregato" was looking for the camera's owners.

After carefully scrutinizing the photos, Garcia figured the pictures were taken from the Queen Mary 2, which sailed from New York on October 16, 2008 and arrived in Southampton on the south coast of England on October 22, 2008. For much of its journey it traveled alongside the Queen Elizabeth 2, which was on its final transatlantic round trip.

The posting got no responses, so Garcia went to a Spanish newspaper, which published a splashy article. Nothing happened. He also took a snapshot of the couple posing with a waiter on the ship to Cunard. The shipping company said it didn't keep a file of passenger photographs.

Then the BBC picked up the story, flashing several shots of the couple on an evening newscast in early February and posting them on its web site. The online story even speculated that the couple was from the U.S. because the man was "wearing a woolly tourist hat from Oxford."

A friend of Barbara and Dennis' Gregory saw the shots of the South African couple and phoned them immediately.

"I was absolutely so excited, you become like a child getting butterflies in your stomach," recalled Barbara Gregory, 53, of her and Dennis', 65, reaction to learning the pictures from their long-awaited 25th wedding anniversary survived their watery grave.

"It's unheard of, even if you were looking for it, what are the chances?" Barbara said in an exclusive interview with "It took them 70 years to find the Titanic, and two years to find our camera. Amazing."

Cunard executives, who operated the Queen Mary 2 on which the couple sailed, were as flummoxed as the Gregorys.

"In all my years in the travel industry, I have never heard of such a heart-warming stroke of luck, and we at Cunard are delighted that Mr. and Mrs. Gregory have been reunited with their photos," said Peter Shanks, the ship line's president, in a statement.

The discovery is reminiscent of the Caldecott-award-winning-book "Flotsam," by David Wiesner, which tells a wordless story of a boy finding a camera flung ashore by a mighty wave with its photos intact. The photos document the box camera's watery journey and its otherworldly encounters with larger-than-life sea creatures and strange alien beings on the ocean floor.

So what did the Gregory's camera see?

The business executive and her chemical engineer husband purchased the camera at Macy's in New York to document their 25th wedding anniversary. It was the most expensive camera they ever owned, but well worth the price to memorialize their long-awaited journey. Barbara Gregory always dreamed of seeing New York, and the week the couple spent there didn't let her down.

"They were a documentary of how we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary," she said. "And at the same time fulfilled two dreams of a lifetime -- mine to go to New York and my husband's to travel aboard a luxury liner."

Among Barbara Gregory's favorites are a snapshot of her mugging in front of Tiffany's, where afterward the couple quietly strode inside and "pretended we were rich." She also fondly recalls taking in other touristy spots such as Times Square and "the biggest McDonald's we'd ever seen."

After spending a week in the Big Apple, the couple boarded the Queen Mary 2 to sail to England, where Barbara is originally from. After a few blustery days at sea, not at all like the Indian summer they experienced in America, the couple emerged on deck halfway through their week-long journey to bask in the sunshine.

While taking in the view from deck chairs, the camera snuggled into Dennis' lap, the couple heard someone remark about a pod of spirited dolphins off the ship's bow. Dennis jumped up to spy them and the camera vaulted off his legs and into the sea. At the time, the ship was miles off the south coast of Ireland over the treacherous Continental Shelf.

"We were totally devastated, you realize what you lost and that it's sank to the bottom of the sea. There's no chance of recovery at all," recounted Barbara. "We actually went back to our cabin and wept."

The Gregorys said they didn't bother to notify Cunard of the loss because they assumed they would never see their camera again.

"A lot of people never expected us to be found -- they never expected a reunion between the camera and its owner," Barbara said.

Now she's planning to prominently display pictures of the couple's 25th wedding anniversary in their home in suburban Johannesburg when Estevez returns the memory card to them after coming in from his latest trip.

And the Gregorys are also setting aside money to vacation in Spain this year, where they plan to meet Estevez and Garcia and take them to dinner.

"We want to give them a hug," Barbara said. "You can't thank them on e-mail, or on the phone, you just can't. Finding the camera is no big deal, but the fact that they went to so much trouble to find us is amazing, and it really shows what a decent human being they both are."

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