Thursday, May 17, 2012

Answer: Where on earth?

The short answer:  This photo was taken in March, 2004.  (I know, since I took the picture.)  It was shot at the Matei airport on Taveuni, Fiji.  The runway there is 910m long (2,986 feet).  

How to solve this challenge: In this case, all you know is that it’s somewhere with palm trees (given that it’s me taking the picture, probably somewhere in the tropics), and that the plane has a tail registration number. 

If you do a simple quoted search [ “DQ-TRI” ] you’ll quickly find that this is a plane that was in the service of Air Fiji.  Info about the plane  It’s a Pilatus Britten-Norman Trislander registered to Air Fiji.    (Why use the quotes?  Because without them you end up with far too many off-topics hits.  DQ and TRI both have multiple meanings.  But together in a phrase... they can only mean one thing.)  

You’ll find that all planes have tail numbers that identify who they’re registered to—who owns them, etc..  If you read a bit more, about the plane, you can discover all kinds of amazing information out on the open web--who made it, who bought it, where it was sold (and re-sold).  For the history of this particular plane, see  

To get the rest of the story, you can check the Wikipedia page for Air Fiji tells the story.  The company started in 1967, but foundered in 2009, selling off all 5 planes in its fleet.  

But for our purposes, the first photo on the Wikipedia page is a photo of a plane in a nearly identical location (by Herman Luyken).  
The interesting bit here is that the plane in the photo I took is in almost exactly the same spot as the Wikipedia photo.  This lets us verify that it’s really the same South Pacific airport (and not some other random airport in the tropics). 

If you look on the Wikipedia page, for the Matei airport on Taveuni, Fiji, you’ll find it’s at 16°41′26″S 179°52′37″W, and the runway is 910m or 2,986ft.

Now, how to determine the date? 

The folks who looked for a picture by me from a possible trip to Fiji did the right thing.  It was a good idea, and it’s the first thing I would have done.  Except I didn’t put anything out onto the web about that trip. 

And the people who looked for the metadata associated with the image (also called the EXIF data—see the Wikipedia article on EXIF)  also had a good idea.  Except I stripped out the EXIF data, just because I knew you’d be looking.   You have to be a little careful about the EXIF since it can be altered on purpose (or just by accident when the image is edited). 

So how to get a decent date range?  You also know that Air Fiji when out of business in 2009 and the plane was purchased in 2002, so it has to be between those dates.

But if you compare the pictures side-by-side: can see that the background foliage is very, very, VERY similar.  All of the trees are the same height, even the grass is pretty much the same between the two pictures.

Then, if you do an image search for [ Matei Taveuni airport ] you can find other images from other dates (I could find ones from 2008 and 2004 easily) that let me see what kind of background foliage change had happened during that time.  If you look closely, you can see not only that some of the plants had changed, but also the fence posts around the runway as well. 

So while this isn’t an exact measure, you can be pretty confident that this picture was taken sometime in 2004.  (And I’ll tell you, it was taken on March 17th, 2 weeks after the Wikipedia picture was shot!) 

In a more normal case, the EXIF data probably would have given you precisely the date. 

And, as reader korffr wrote, a great solution is... 

For the bonus question, I look at a hint from a previous poster, when he mentioned that a search for your dive trips didn't give much. I found a picture which listed a number of your fellow divers: "Divers in the photos include Harry Saddler, Dan Russell, Tom Gruber, Richard Santucci...."
So I did an OR search for all their names ["Harry Saddler" OR "Dan M. Russell" OR "Tom Gruber" OR "Richard Santucci" fiji ] and the term Fiji"
This leds to a picture by Tom on TraveloCafe:  korffr continues... .
Clicking on the picture goes to flickr, where this picture is part of a set taken in Fiji, which ranges between 16 March 2004 and 23 March 2004.
Nicely done.  

SEARCH LESSONS:  (1) Once again, using whatever small amount of text you have in an image can often lead you to the kind of repositories you need... in this case, all of the accumulated information about plane registrations.  

(2) Sometimes you have to look for the forest AND the trees, and by comparing information you get from multiple sources (e.g., pictures from 2008 or information about when Air Fiji bought that particular plane), you can get a pretty good boundary on the possible dates.   

(3) And... sometimes checking the trees means looking for friends who are on the same trip!  Think strategically.  

Search on! 


  1. Your ordering of the questions was a bit misleading (on purpose?) because it seems to me you found the location of the picture first and then were able to lookup the runway length.

  2. PS - Thanks for these puzzles/challenges. I do enjoy them.

  3. Daniel, unfortunately I was too late posting a comment, and was about a week off. But also that was a lucky guess. One of the commenters mentioned that they searched for dive drips, so I found a list of 'dive buddies'. On google plus. "Divers in the photos include Harry Saddler, Dan Russell, Tom Gruber, Richard Santucci, Laurie Damianos, Anne Aula and Geoff Davis"

    When entering this in google with an OR for all the names with Fiji ("Harry Saddler" OR "Dan M. Russell" OR "Tom Gruber" OR "Richard Santucci" OR "Laurie Damianos" OR "Anne Aula" OR "Geoff Davis") AND fiji

    I got a hit for a picture Tom Gruber took at Fiji. Following the link to Flickr shows a set which starts at 16th March and ends at 23 of March. I figured you would take a picture walking to the plane i.e. departure, therefore one day after the last picture 24th of March. It is still a bit sketchy and a lucky guess, since I could not establish if you were on that same trip.

  4. Richard - that was a stellar sleuth search effort. Just the kind of connections the Knowledge Graph aspires to.
    The confluence of Gruber, Siri, GooGraph, roaming dive parties and even whale sharks is interesting.
    Now, if the live feed from the SDS (social drone search & cctv, think London/NYC) could just be rolled into the Graph...
    Siri, do you know where I am? do you know why I am? do you know where I was? do you know where I will be? where I was displaced?

    "That which is easily lost is not easily found" The Colloquy of Laozi and Skynet/5 eyes, 1984, supplemental to Robert Smithson:

    "You don't have to have cows to be a cowboy." Nudie

    COATLICUE: You have no future
    CHRONOS: And you have no past.
    COATLICUE: That doesn't leave us much of a present.
    CHRONOS: Maybe we are doomed to being merely some "light-years" with missing tenses.
    COATLICUE: Or two inefficient memories.
    CHRONOS: So this is Paleque.
    COATLICUE: Yes, as soon as it was named it ceased to exist.
    CHRONOS: Do you think those overturned rocks exist?
    COATLICUE: They exist in the same way that undiscovered moons orbiting an unknown planet exist.
    CHRONOS: How can we talk about what exists, when we hardly exist ourselves?
    COATLICUE: You don't have to have existence to exist.