The ecologist who found his wedding ring

dagmaranall.jpg

Photo: Dagmara Nall

When Aleki Taumoepeau, a 42-year old ecologist, dropped his wedding ring in the murky waters of a New Zealand just months after he and his wife Rachel got hitched, he was determined to find it at all costs. Everyone — including Rachel — thought he was crazy. Quite miraculously, Aleki found the ring at the bottom of the sea a year and a half later. I got on the phone with Aleki recently to find out how he lost and found his wedding ring in the ocean. It's a story of love, faith, obsession, and GPS coordinates, and it starts in a beautiful harbor town on the southern tip of New Zealand's North Island.

I'm a fresh water ecologist at the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research in Hamilton. My main job is to help the scientists survey lakes and vegetation, identify species, and advise the power company and regional councils on how to treat noxious plants. I usually work in fresh water, but on that day, I was helping the short-staffed salt water marine guys look for invasive organisms in Wellington Harbor. There were several divers with me on board the inflatable Naiad boat, and I was trying to start the engine when the ring just flew off my finger.

We all saw it go in the water. I usually don't wear my ring when working on boats or diving — this was just the one time that i forgot to take it off. My first reaction was to grab an anchor and drop it where the ring went down. After that, four of the divers on the boat went down to have a look, but they couldn't find the ring or the anchor. The water was particularly murky that day, so after about thirty minutes I told them not to worry about it. It was Friday afternoon, and we still had one more job site to attend to. That was in March 2008, three months after I had married my wife Rachel.

Three months later, I was at a conference in Wellington so I decided to go and have a look. I asked some of the delegates there to help me out — they thought it was a great cause and were keen to do so. So at 6AM on a cold wintery morning, four of us went out to the beach. The water was quite rough and cold, about 50 degrees fahrenheit. I brought Scuba diving gear, a metal detector, and a dry suit. We were at a sampling site when I lost my ring, so we had recorded its GPS coordinates on our field sheets. The area where I'd lost the ring was supposed to be about 100 yards from the shore and about three meters deep. When I got out in the water, though, there was so much debris in the area — pipes, old tire rims, coins, belts — that the metal detector just went off all the time. I also realized that I had brought the wrong GPS coordinates with me — the area where the lost ring was supposed to be a little bit further away. I was cold and the metal detector was going crazy, so I headed back to shore. Later that week, I had another go, but that was also unsuccessful.

Rachel and I met on a golf course — we just clicked, and things went very quickly after that. We had a big Tongan island wedding in November 2007. When I told Rachel about the lost ring, she said she would buy me another one. But that was too easy for me. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I insisted that I was going to find my ring.

Rachel and I returned to Wellington again this past July to attend another conference. I said to her, "Let's go a day earlier to look for the ring!" She said, "You're crazy. It's been 15 months. What are the chances of finding it?" I promised her it would be the last time I'd look for it, and that if I didn't find it she could buy me another ring. She was happy with that. So off I went to the beach again with my scuba gear and metal detector. We now have a baby son, so he and my wife sat on the shore while I went searching in the water.

This time, I did a little bit more homework. I managed to get the field sheet from our original trip with the right GPS coordinates. I mapped them out on Google Earth &mdash with Google Earth I could actually see the physical landscape and the trees, which would be useful for me to relocate the site while swimming. I loaded the coordinates on my ETrex and swam out to the site. As soon as I got there, I realized that the terrain had physically changed. I was a bit concerned that recent storms could have moved the anchor. And even if the anchor was still there, the ring may not be next to it.

Regardless, I knew that if I found the anchor, I'd have a very good chance of finding the ring. I dropped a little white marker with a plastic bag tied to a rope, put on my snorkels, and stuck my head under water. The water was so clear. I had never seen it so clear before. I had a good feeling that I would find it. I'm Christian, so I said a little prayer. I said, "God, don't make it too easy for me because I was feeling a bit confident that I would find it." Then I began swimming around. I figured weeds would have grown over the anchor, so every clumps of weeds I saw, I'd swim down and have a look. I covered a lot of ground to no avail. The water was quite cold, and I was getting tired. I said another prayer: "God, if the ring is here, it would be nice to show it to me right about now. I'm tired from bobbing up and down." I swam back towards my marker to start over again. I had told myself I would look for a minimum of three hours. I looked at my watch. Just over an hour. I stopped and took a deep breath, and started swimming again...

And there it was! The anchor was right beneath me. I just couldn't believe it. There weren't even any weeds on it. I was just so excited, and I thought, wow, I better not lose this spot. I kept looking at the land to triangulate the spot. My plan was to go back to get my marker and put it on this spot. Before I went back, though, I decided to have a quick look &mdash so i went down to the anchor on the snorkel and circled it. Lo and behold, about three yards away, was the ring. It was lying flat on the shelly surface, glimmering in the water. I grabbed it, grabbed the anchor, and pushed up to the surface. And then I started cheering. Yeaaaaarhhhh!! Yahoooo!

Rachel heard me from shore — she was talking on the phone to someone at work about how crazy I was to be in the water. A couple of people walking their dogs had asked her what the crazy guy in the water was doing. When I got back to shore, just Rachel and the baby were there. I held up the ring. It's a simple gold band with four rolls, kind of like four thinner rings connected together. It was slightly tarnished on the inside, and the gold was a bit dull, but you could still see it shine.

I had had this elaborate methodical plan to lay out a search grid on snorkels, then get my scuba gear and metal detector from shore and check each square from my marker. But I didn't even need that. I just found it on my snorkels. "God, you're just awesome," I thought.

People read a lot of romantic things into this, but for me it was sort of a challenge. It's not the same to buy a new one, you know? In the back of my mind, I knew I would find it. I have honed my diving skills and the ability to search for and identify things underwater from my job — I'm usually looking for plants, but I know that it's important to be familiar with the environment, for example, and to recognize different sediments and substrates at the bottom. I would have definitely had to use the metal detector if I'd lost the ring on soft sediment, but here I was dealing with sandy shell. I later talked to a scientist who maps sand movements, and he said that that particular area had a lot of sand movement. It's possible that the ring was buried in sand and then unburied again due to water movements and erosions. That explains why, on my first go at finding the ring, I only saw logs and murkiness.

I found the ring on July 29, 2009. After that, the Hamilton Press picked up the story, and then it took off on a world scale. A lot of people emailed me saying what a nice story it was. On the Internet, some people believed in me all along, some people discounted God, and others thought I had just gone out and bought another ring and pretended I'd found it. I realized it had impacted a lot of people. This experience definitely strengthened my faith. It's just the power of prayer, I guess.