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Message In A Bottle: From Yesterday To Today

Message In A Bottle: From Yesterday To Today

by August 11, 2020

There’s something so alluring about the idea of finding an old bottle washed up on a shore containing a loving or cryptic message that could have been written hundreds of years ago on the other side of the world. There are books and myths galore about messages in bottles, not to mention movies, too.

However, the history of how messages in bottles first became a phenomenon is much less romantic. The earliest record dates back to approximately 310 BCE, when a Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, used one for a science experiment. Theophrastus is believed to have put bottles in the sea as a way to test if the Mediterranean was formed by water flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.

The next key historical mention of messages in bottles relates to Christopher Columbus. After the explorer found the “New World” in the late 1400s, he was caught in a bad storm as he tried to sail back from America. Worried that his discovery would go to the grave with him, Columbus wrote some details on a piece of parchment and set it adrift in the sea in a wooden barrel.

Later, in 1846, messages in bottles started to be released into the ocean en masse by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. This was done as a way to gather information on ocean currents. Then, in the late 19th century, messages in bottles became so popular that columns in both British and American newspapers were devoted to notes found in bottles each week. Much research ended up having to be completed on each message, though, for verification, as many people sent in hoaxes as a joke.

Today, due to the environmental impact on marine life, it is advised that people no longer throw messages in bottles into the sea since doing so contributes to ocean pollution.

Plastic is one of the worst offenders when it comes to endangering sea creatures and marine birds, and the ocean in general. It is not biodegradable, and is regularly ingested by animals that can get sick or die from it. It even stops numerous young chicks from being able to learn to fly. In addition, plastic wraps around and chokes and otherwise harms many creatures. Glass bottles are not a good substitute for messages either. The sharp edges that occur when bottles crack or break are a big hazard to wildlife and, again, the glass takes many years to grind down.

When it comes to possibilities for sending messages that are less harmful, a research project at the University of Oldenburg in Germany has been trialling one option. The scientists are sending out wooden blocks (which will ultimately degrade) with embossed messages on them, which are printed in a non-toxic ink.

The goal of the project is to better understand, after people report back on finding the blocks, how plastics travel around oceans. The researchers also hope to be able to identify major polluters, examine behavioural patterns regarding plastic pollution, and develop solutions for the vast problem.

The World’s Oldest Bottled Message

Currently, the world’s confirmed oldest message in a bottle is one found 132 years after being put in the sea. The message was thrown from a German ship named The Paula in the Indian Ocean in 1886. It was dropped into the ocean as part of a research project by the German Naval Observatory while studying ocean and shipping routes. The bottle was one of thousands thrown overboard during a 69-year experiment.

It was found washed-up in Australia, on a remote beach in W.A. A Perth resident found the bottle as she was picking up rubbish while on a walk with her family. Initially, she just wanted to keep the bottle as a decoration for her house, but after the sand within was tipped out and the message found, things changed.

The slip of paper was wet and fragile, but after drying off, a date of 12 June 1886 became clear. Dr Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum, was given the bottle and its message to research further, and he eventually, in consultation with experts in Germany and the Netherlands, found the note to be authentic.

The World’s Longest-Travelling Bottled Message

While it is hard to know for sure which bottle may have travelled the farthest on its journey, it is thought that a message in a bottle thrown into the North Sea in 2011 by an at-the-time eight-year-old could hold the title. A schoolboy wrote a short message on a Dr Who postcard, asking for anyone who found it to reply to him. He launched it into the sea at Roker, in Sunderland in North East England.

Approximately 17 months later the bottle found dry land in Australia. A 25-year-old man from Western Australia found the message on a beach in Perth and wrote back to the sender, who soon realised that the bottle had travelled close to 16,000 kilometres.


A Titanic Message

We all know the story of the Titanic, but what you may not know is its fascinating connection with messages in bottles. A 19-year-old passenger on the ill-fated vessel, Jeremiah Burke, was given a holy water bottle by his mother quayside, before he set off on his voyage.

As the Titanic sank he wrote a goodbye message and placed it in the bottle, which he threw into the sea. Amazingly, the bottle and its message were found washed ashore about a year later only a few miles from Burke’s family home in Cork, Ireland. The message made its way to his family, and it was kept in the family for more than a hundred years before being donated to a heritage centre in Cork.

Love Notes

While love does not come about from most messages thrown into the sea, for one couple it did. A lonely Swedish sailor, Ake Viking, wrote a letter “To Someone Beautiful and Far Away” in 1956, in a bid to get fate to help him find a young woman to marry.

Two years later, he received a letter from a girl named Paolina, from Sicily, who replied, “I am not beautiful, but it seems so miraculous that this little bottle should have traveled so far and long to reach me that I must send an answer…” The pair exchanged notes back and forth for a time, and then, three years after he first sent his message, the Swedish sailor moved to Italy to marry his long-distance paramour.

By Kellie Byrnes
Published in the April – July 2020 print edition.