Message in a Bottle - The Real Deal

Not the Film !

Not the Books !

Not the Movie !

But the real one started by an ancient mariner marooned alone on a deserted island, desperately trying to make contact and be rescued. 

The pop group 'The Police' made a song about it, several books have been written about it , and Kevin Costner starred in a romantic film of the same title.

But what is the Real Deal? The history of Messages in Bottles? The World Records? How, When and Why? Who wrote them in the past and why? Who writes them now? How far do the bottles travel before being washed upon a beach? How long does it take for the messages to be found?

The message being delivered by sea-mail
The message being delivered by sea-mail. Source: Public Domain
The message in a bottle movie
The message in a bottle movie. Source: Public Domain

Last year my son and I released 9 messages in plastic (PET soft drink/soda) bottles from Culburra Beach, on the South-Eastern coast of New South Wales Australia. We simpy printed the message, rolled it up, with the message on the outside, and popped it into a bottle and sealed it tightly with the bottle cap. The message unrolled inside the bottle, and so could be read through the bottle wall.

I know that this is not as romantic as the rolled parchment message tied with cord of a hair braid, but it is easier to read and does the job well. Add a stone, coins or lead sinker, so that the bottle travels a little lower in the water. The ink will fade but what the Heck! Plastic is probably better than glass on a beach anyway! (check your local littering laws!)

The odd thing was that the bottles seemed to know where they were headed.

We threw the bottles out on a day with a very strong westerly offshore breeze. As we watched them we noticed that 2 bottles headed North-East, 3 went South-East and the remaining 4 headed due East. The pattern was quite distinctive.

There are similar records of directional bottle post. It has been reported that two bottles were dropped together off the Brazilian coast, one drifted east for 130 days and was found on a beach in Africa; the other floated northwest for 190 days, reaching Nicaragua.

One of our messages released from Culburra Beach in January was found 4 months later on Flinders Island in Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania! It had travelled a minimum of about 700 km or 435 miles. The average speed was about 0.03 km/hour or 0.01 knots. (See the Map)

It's a fun thing to do and my son wants to have another go, during our vacation at the beach.

Map of journey made by the message in a bottle released from Culburra Beach, NSW Australia
Map of journey made by the message in a bottle released from Culburra Beach, NSW Australia. Source: Public Domain

Incidentally, Jessica Watson left Sydney, in the 10.2 metre “Pink Lady”, on the 18th October 2009. She returned on 15th May 2010, after completing about 18,265 nautical miles, on her solo round the world sailing trip. She average around 9.5 km/hour or 5 knots on her voyage.

The message
The message. Source: Public Domain
The letter that was found inside the bottle
The letter that was found inside the bottle. Source: Public Domain

The Oldest Message in a Bottle (Guinness Book of Records)

The oldest message in a bottle ever recovered
The oldest message in a bottle ever recovered. Source: Public Domain

The Longest Ever Journey

Perhaps the longest ever trip was launched in the southern Indian Ocean in 1929 by a German scientific expedition. The message could be read without having to break the bottle (bottle chain letter?).

It requested that the finder tell the researchers where it was found, and throw it back into the sea. It was found, reported, found and reported again, several additional times.

The path was tracked out into the Atlantic, back into the Indian Ocean, and eventually landed on the west coast of Australia in 1935.

It had covered about 16,000 miles (7000 km) in 6.5 years (2,447 days) and averaged about 6 nautical miles a day (11 km/day, 7 miles/ day).

World Oldest Message in Bottle now 108 years!

A bottle was thrown into sea by Plymouth biologist in 1906 and found by German woman. More than 1,000 bottles were thrown into the North Sea by George Parker Bidder. This was as part of his research into sea currents. A retired German postal worker, Marianne Winkler, on holiday on Amrun, one of Germany’s North Frisian islands found the bottle and returned the postal card it contained to the Marine Biological Association, to claim the reward of one shilling. The messages returned by others helped him prove that the deep sea current in the North Sea flowed from east to west. The Association found an old shilling on Ebay and sent it to her with a letter of thanks.

History of Messages in a Bottle

Modern World Sea Current Map - hot currents in red, cold currents in blue
Modern World Sea Current Map - hot currents in red, cold currents in blue. Source: Public Domain
One of the oldest ever messages found in a bottle
One of the oldest ever messages found in a bottle. Source: Public Domain
Australian example of a message recovered from a bottle cast overboard from a ship
Australian example of a message recovered from a bottle cast overboard from a ship. Source: Public Domain

Space Versions of a Message of a Bottle

NASA, the U.S. space agency has effectively launched several space versions of "messages in bottles." Bolted to the frames of Pioneer 11 (launched on April 5, 1973) and Pioneer 10 (launched on March 2, 1972) were special graphic messages. The messages were in the form of 9 by 6-inch gold-anodized aluminium plaques (shown below). 

The plaques on the Voyages spacecraft shows Earth's location relative to 14 neutron stars (pulsars)
The plaques on the Voyages spacecraft shows Earth's location relative to 14 neutron stars (pulsars). Source: Public Domain

In August and September 1977, NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft. Each carried a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk, containing recorded sounds of Earth, and images representing human cultures and life on Earth. Simple diagrams on the cover represent the origin of the spacecraft and provide instructions for playing the disk. 

The 'Golden Record' on the Voyager space crafts
The 'Golden Record' on the Voyager space crafts. Source: Public Domain

Social Network Versions of a Message in a Bottle

It was inevitable that several websites have been developed for sending "messages in a bottle" through Cyber Spaces via the Internet.

Oceangram message in a bottle is the internet (Cyber Space ) version of sending a message in a bottle. You write the message on a paper scroll, seal it in a bottle which you select, and send it off into the Cyber ocean. Someone from around the world in Cyber Space may pick it up from the ocean and read it. In order to receive a message, you just go to the site, enjoy the view and watch the ocean, and a bottle may just come floating by.

The Oceangram Website
The Oceangram Website. Source: Public Domain

Update: Longest Time at Sea Now 108 Years

The 'Oldest' message in a bottle record is likely to be updated by a new discovery. One of 1000 bottles released by the Marine Biological Association of the UK, between 1904 and 1906, was found by a woman on a beach in Amrum, Germany. Inside the bottle was a postcard asking the the postcard be returned to the Marine Biological Association. Marianne Winkler found the bottle in April while on holidays on the German island about 310 miles (500 km) away from where it was released. The finder returned the postcard and recieved an old English shilling, the agreed reward for returning the postcard, was dutifully sent by the association to honour the original agreement.

The existing world record for the oldest message in a bottle is 99 years and 43 days, for a bottle found west of the Shetland Islands in July 2013.

Update 2: Longest Time at sea is now 134 Years

World's oldest message in a bottle found by beachwalker in Australia

The Gin bottle was thrown overboard from a German ship before ending up on a beach in Western Australia 132 years later. The bottle found in Western Australia had a message that noted the ship’s coordinates and name, plus the date it was thrown into the sea. 

onya Illman found the 132-year-old gin bottle in the dunes near Wedge Island in January. Her husband, Kym Illman, initially thought it was rubbish but picked it up because it had distinct, raised lettering and would be at home on their bookshelf.

Inside, she found a roll of paper printed in German and dated to 12 June 1886, which was authenticated by the Western Australian Museum.

“It was an absolute fluke. It won’t get better than than this,” said husband Kym Illman. 

The bottle had been thrown overboard from the German sailing ship Paula in 1886 as it crossed the Indian Ocean, 950km from the Australian coast, according to Ross Anderson, the museum’s assistant curator of maritime archaeology. At the time, German ships were conducting a 69-year experiment that involved throwing thousands of bottles into the sea to track ocean currents. Each message was marked with the ship’s coordinates, the date, and the name of the ship, which Anderson used to verify the message.

Details from the Illmans’ message matched Paula’s maritime records, and Anderson also compared handwriting samples with captain’s entries in Paula’s meteorological journal. “Incredibly, there was an entry for June 12, 1886, made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard,” Anderson said.

His finding was confirmed by experts at the German Naval Observatory. The previous record for oldest message in a bottle was 108 years. Of the thousands jettisoned, 662 other messages from the same German experiment have been found and returned before the latest discovery. The most recent was found in 1934.