Message in a Bottle

MS. Found in a Bottle

message in a bottle is a form of communication in which a message is sealed in a container (typically a bottle) and released into a conveyance medium (typically a body of water).

Messages in bottles have been used to send distress messages, in crowdsourced scientific studies of ocean currents, as memorial tributes, to send deceased loved ones’ ashes on a final journey, to convey expedition reports, and to carry letters or reports from those believing themselves to be doomed. Invitations to prospective pen pals and letters to actual or imagined love interests have also been sent as messages in bottles.

The lore surrounding messages in bottles has often been of a romantic or poetic nature.

The term has been applied metaphorically to plaques on craft launched into outer space, interstellar radio messages, stationary time capsules, balloon mail, and containers storing medical information for use by emergency medical personnel.

With a growing awareness that bottles constitute waste that can harm the environment and marine life, biodegradable drift cards and wooden blocks are alternatives favored by environmentalists.

Bottled messages may date to about 310 BCE, in water current studies reputed to have been carried out by Greek philosopher Theophrastus. The Japanese medieval epic ‘The Tale of the Heike’ records the story of an exiled poet who, in about 1177, launched wooden planks on which he had inscribed poems describing his plight. In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I created an official position of ‘Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,’ and—thinking some bottles might contain secrets from British spies or fleets—decreed that anyone else opening the bottles could face the death penalty. In the nineteenth century, literary works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1833 ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ and Charles Dickens’ 1860 ‘A Message from the Sea’ inspired an enduring popular passion for sending bottled messages.

Scientific experiments involving drift objects—more generally called determinate drifters—provide information about currents and help researchers develop ocean circulation maps. For example, experiments conducted in the mid-1700s by Benjamin Franklin and others indicated the existence and approximate location of the Gulf Stream, with scientific confirmation following in the mid-1800s. Using a network of beachcomber informants, rear admiral Alexander Becher is believed to be the first (from 1808–1852) to study travel of so-called ‘bottle papers’ around an ocean gyre (a large circulating current system).

In the late 1800s, Albert I, Prince of Monaco determined that the Gulf Stream branched into the North Atlantic Drift and the Azores Current. In the 1890s, Scottish scientist T. Wemyss Fulton released floating bottles and wooden slips to chart North Sea surface currents for the first time. Releasing bottles designed to remain a short distance above the sea bed, British marine biologist George Parker Bidder III first proved in the early twentieth century that deep sea currents flowed from east to west in the North Sea and that bottom feeders prefer to move against the current.

Outside science, people have launched bottled messages to find pen pals, ‘bottle preachers’ have sent ‘sermon bottles,’ propaganda-bearing bottles have been directed at foreign shores, and survivors have sent poetic loving tributes to departed loved ones or sent their cremated remains (ashes) on a final journey. It was estimated in 2009 that since the mid-1900s, six million bottled messages had been released, including 500,000 from oceanographers.

Some bottles are ballasted with dry sand so that they float vertically at or near the ocean surface, and are less influenced by winds and breaking waves than other bottles that are purposely not ballasted. Wooden blocks float higher in the water and thus are more influenced by wind—a design specially suited for simulating travel paths of plastic waste that is less dense than glass containers.

An early-20th-century ‘bottom’ (or seabed) drift bottle design by George Parker Bidder III involved weighting a bottle with a long copper wire that causes it to sink until the wire trails upon the sea bottom, at which time the bottle tends to remain a few inches above the bottom to be moved by the bottom current. A mushroom-shaped seabed drifter design has also been used. Seabed drifters are designed to be scooped up by a trawler or wash up on shore. Water pressure pressing on the cork or other closure was thought to keep a bottle better sealed; some designs included a wooden stick to stop the cork from imploding. Vessels of less scientific designs have survived for extended periods, including a baby food bottle a ginger beer bottle, and a 7-Up bottle.

A low percentage of bottles—thought by some to be less than 3 percent—are actually recovered, so they are released in large numbers, sometimes in the thousands. A Scripps scientist said that marine organisms grow on the bottles, causing them to sink within eight to ten months unless washed ashore earlier.

Some drift bottles were not found for more than a century after being launched. Floating objects may ride gyres (large circulating current systems) that are present in each ocean, and may be transferred from one ocean’s gyre to another’s. Further, objects may be sidetracked by wind, storms, countercurrents, and ocean current variation. Accordingly, drift bottles have traveled large distances, with drifts of 4,000 to 6,000 miles and more—sometimes traveling 100 miles per day—not uncommon.

Bottles have traveled from the Beaufort Sea above northern Alaska and northwestern Canada to northern Europe; from Antarctica to Tasmania; from Mexico to the Philippines; from Canada’s Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay to Irish, French, Scottish, and Norwegian beaches; from the Galapagos Islands to Australia; and from New Zealand to Spain (practically antipodes).

Despite being launched substantial time periods before being found, some bottles have been found physically close to their original launch points, such as a message launched by two girls in 1915 and found in 2012 near Harsens Island, Michigan, U.S., and a ten-year-old girl’s message launched into the Indian River Bay in Delaware, U.S. in 1971 and found in adjacent Delaware Seashore State Park in 2016.

In what was described as ‘perhaps the most famous message in a bottle love story,’ in 1999, a green ginger beer bottle was dredged up by a fisherman off the Essex coast, the bottle containing an 84 year old letter tossed into the English channel on September 9, 1914 by British soldier Private Thomas Hughes days before he was killed in fighting in France. Hughes’ letter, written for delivery to his wife who had died in 1979, was delivered instead to his then 86-year-old daughter in New Zealand by the fisherman himself, who with his own wife was flown to New Zealand at the expense of New Zealand Post.

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