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Tech Culture

Messages in Bottles: A Constant Yet Changing Technology

A short history of people sending messages across the ocean in bottles.
Aug 25th, 2019 6:00am by
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Some stories remind us that underlying all of our high-powered communications technology is that basic human impulse to connect. And the urge sometimes fulfills itself with the most basic of technologies.

For centuries, people are still finding messages in bottles hopefully tossed into the ocean years earlier for strangers to find. In each century different imaginations have taken up a hope-based methodology, and there’s still something affirming in seeing how the practice has endured… and evolved.

And that there’s still a primal thrill in receiving a mysterious message from a stranger — from across the ocean, from a distant continent far away.

In fact, there may be an ongoing environmental mystery — or simply a wild coincidence — that we’re now living in a moment in time where we seem to be discovering more and more bottles from our past.

From Russia with Love

“I found a message in a bottle today,” Tyler Ivanoff posted earlier this month on Facebook. Somewhere in Alaska, he’d stood on a beach, intrigued by the message’s mysterious Russian characters. “Any friends that are Russian translators out there?” he’d asked on Facebook — posting the photo he’d snapped with his cellphone

And thanks to the networked online world, it quickly received a response from one Facebook user whose profile identifies them as Andrew Crow, currently working at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. He confirmed that the message’s Cyrillic characters included a date in 1969. The message?\

“Heartfelt greetings from… the ship Sulakh of the fleet VRHF {Far Eastern Fishing Fleet}… When you find this paper please inform us at this address: Vladivostok – 63, VRHF, P/B Sukak, entire crew… We wish you good health, a long life, and happy sailing.”

Just three weeks earlier, in South Australia, 9-year-old Jyah Elliott found another message in a bottle from 1969 — and again used Facebook to track down its sender online. According to news reports, the message in this bottle had been written by a 13-year-old boy named Paul Gilmore, who’d been traveling by boat and leaving behind his home in England, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gilmore later told the network that “Every few days I’d write a note and throw it in the sea hoping that I’d hear from someone, but I never did — until today.”

“Fifty years is a long time to wait for a reply.”

Ironically, Newsweek reported that initially 63-year-old Mr. Gilmore couldn’t be reached for comment — because he was off on another boat, this time for a cruise. Gilmore later told them that while on the cruise, he stood on the ship’s railing and told his wife that once he’d thrown bottles with messages into the Indian Ocean.

“Keep checking those beaches — I think there are two more bottles out there.”

“It was a huge surprise to say the least when my phone started going crazy just after I stepped ashore in Estonia,” he said in an email to the boy who’d discovered his message. “It brought back a lot of wonderful memories, I can tell you that.”

And he ended his email back with a friendly and encouraging message for his counterpart in the next generation.

“My very best wishes to you Jyah and your family. Keep checking those beaches — I think there are two more bottles out there.”

In fact, there have been a lot of messages in a bottle discovered this year. About 75 miles north of San Francisco, Eric McDermott had volunteered to clean California’s Russian River — and in April discovered a bottle with a message that had been launched from Hawaii in 2006 by three children — who at the time had been 4, 7, and 10, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. McDermott had contacted the children’s mother, who said that “It was just the coolest thing to know that it traveled that far and was actually found by someone and the note was in great shape.”

And on July 19th UPI reported that a Scottish family on vacation on an island in Scotland had discovered a bottle that had been tossed into the ocean off the coast of Maine in 1998 by a 13-year-old boy. Besides his mailing address, the message had just nine words. “Hello, my name is Matt Rhoades. Please write back.”

“That thing has been floating for most of my life,” Rhoades told one local newspaper. “Had I known it would be found 20 years later, I would have written something much more substantial!”

In the Name of Science

The Boston Globe notes that the first known message in a bottle was apparently launched by the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus. And one of the oldest-known message in a bottle ever discovered was launched for a scientific experiment in 1914, according to National Geographic, drifting for nearly 98 years before it was discovered in 2011. “Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation set bottle number 646B adrift, along with 1,889 others, on June 10, 1914,” they report — noting that the captain’s experiment is still being monitored by the science division of Marine Scotland, a government agency. (This discovery was the 315th bottle recovered.)

In 2000 Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences (in Sidney, British Columbia) launched “the Drift Bottle Project.” It’s now tossed 6,400 bottled messages into the ocean, according to National Geographic — though only about one in 25 is ever found.

A 2007 article in The American Surveyor magazine remembered how the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey began using drift bottles in 1846 to help determine the route of ocean currents — and continued the practice until 1966!

In 2015 a retired U.K. postal worker discovered a message in a bottle that had been cast adrift more than a century earlier by the U.K.-based Marine Biological Association, according to the Telegraph. While vacationing on Germany’s Amrum Island in the North Sea, Marianne Winkler discovered the bottle and dutifully followed its message’s instructions to send it back after filling in information about where it was found, the newspaper reports. The National Post later discovered it was one of 390 bottles released in August of 1906 by the association’s president. “It was quite a stir when we opened that envelope, as you can imagine,” the Telegraph was told by the communications director of the (still operating) academic group, which was founded in 1884.

The Guinness Book of World Records declared it the oldest message in a bottle ever recorded — until an even older one turned up on a beach in Australia in 2018. Thrown into the ocean in 1886 from a German ship sailing the Indian Ocean, it was discovered in 2018 by a Perth resident who’d helpfully decided to pick up some trash on the beach, they report. “The bottle is one of thousands that were jettisoned during the 69-year experiment,” reports the Guinness World Records site, “but so far only 662 messages, and no bottles, have been returned.”

Writing in the National Post, Simon Boxall, a lecturer in Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton reported that he’d personally released 1,000 bottles with similar messages in the English Channel to the south of the Isle of Wight — and “around 400” got a response, “providing invaluable information on the general flow of the region which can then be used to determine how pollutants would move in our coastal seas.”

“However today our knowledge of oceans currents is advanced enough that random individual messages rarely tell us some new facts of the ocean — there are no mystery ‘supercurrents’ waiting to be discovered.”

Today, small, high-tech “Argo Floats” measure temperature and salinity. There are now 3,866 plying the ocean, according to the project’s website — carefully positioned roughly 300 kilometers apart, (or three degrees of latitude).

“For the first time, the physical state of the upper ocean is being systematically measured and the data assimilated in near real-time into computer models…” the site proudly informs visitors. “The array of ~3200 floats provides 100,000 temperature/salinity (T/S) profiles and velocity measurements per year distributed over the global oceans at an average 3-degree spacing.”

The project’s home page says the projects “take the pulse of the oceans, collecting and distributing temperature and salinity observations from a fleet of 3000 underwater robots.”

Writing in the National Post, Boxall shared his appreciation for these new state-of-the-art messengers in bottles. “With enough power for more than three years, these robotic messages in a bottle work hard to give us details that really do advance our understanding of the oceans and the changing climate.”

Or, to put it another way, humanity’s long-standing basic impulse to send messages in bottles has grown into a sophisticated high-tech solution that may change the way we see our world.

The Argo site says the project hopes to demonstrate “how to collaborate internationally, how to develop a data management system and how to change the way scientists think about collecting data…”


Feature image: Message-in-a-bottle illustration from Jules Verne’s  1868 novel “The Children of Captain Grant.”

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