Message in a Bottle: The History, and the Stories You Never Knew
For fans of pop culture (and especially the nostalgic kind), the idea of a Message in a Bottle probably conjures thoughts of the 1998 Nicholas Sparks novel. Or maybe it’s the 1999 romantic drama film based on the same story, starring Kevin Costner, Paul Newman and Robin Wright. To others, the concept instantly evokes the hit 1979 song by The Police, and you may find yourself already humming along—Sending out an S.O.S.!—at the mere mention of it.
But the history of casting out missives via ocean bottles actually goes much deeper than these popular references—thousands of years deeper, in fact. Here, we explore the history of sending messages in a bottle, and round up a few of the most amazing stories from around the world.
The Brief (and Not Totally Comprehensive) History of Messages in Bottles
A common misconception about messages in bottles is that they are usually romantic in nature. A long lost love letter in a bottle, sent from the heart and discovered years later—what could be a more poetic notion? The truth is, though, the earliest known instances were far from it. Rather than passionate, many instances of these messages have been decidedly practical.
In the age of ancient philosophy, one of Aristotle’s own pupils, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, is credited with having sent the first message in a bottle. He did so in order to test his theory that the mighty Atlantic Ocean flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. It’s still unclear whether he ever received the confirmation he was hoping for.
Suspicious that British spies or any number of nefarious actors may have been using messages in bottles in order to communicate secret messages, Queen Elizabeth took swift action. She appointed a special “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” to open all such bottles that were found, and decreed that it was a capital crime for anyone else to open one.
A Japanese seafarer named Chunosuke Matsuyama was shipwrecked in the remote South Pacific, along with his crew of 40-something other men. Desperate, he carved a message into coconut timber, stuffed it inside a bottle and threw it into the sea. This same message was discovered generations later in 1935, and in a twist of fate, legend has it that the bottle turned up in the same village where Matsuyama had been born centuries before.
While not as sensational as prior examples, this is the year in which the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey first began to study messages in a bottle. Their methods centered around releasing messages into the ocean in great quantities in order to track where they ended up, giving the surveyors critical information about the nature of ocean currents and tides.
In one particularly poignant discovery, a message washed up on shore near Dunkettle, Ireland. It read, “From Titanic. Goodbye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork”—and it had been tossed into the sea by a young passenger of the ill-fated ship, which sank on April 15, 1912. In a strange twist, the bottle washed up only a few miles from Burke’s own hometown. It remained in the family for generations, before it was donated to the Cobh Heritage Centre.
Just a few short years later, a stoic message in a bottle was launched from the site of another tragic shipwreck. The RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, had just been torpedoed by a German U-boat, and as it began quickly taking on water (the massive ship sank entirely in just 18 minutes), one unknown passenger hastily wrote a farewell: “Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast … The end is near. Maybe this note will…”
While many more messages in bottles were surely cast and discovered in the intervening years, 1999 saw the discovery of a missive dating back to the first World War. Private Thomas Hughes had penned a note to his wife and tossed it into the English Channel in 1914, and he tragically was killed in battle just two days later. Found 85 years later in the River Thames, the bottle was given to Hughes’ daughter, who was in her late 80s herself by that time.
In a more uplifting instance, a group of 88 South American refugees found safety thanks to casting out a message in a bottle. After finding themselves abandoned at sea near Costa Rica, they sent out a note pleading for help—and a nearby fishing vessel happened to find it tangled in one of its lines. The fishing boat ultimately came to their rescue.
Modern-Day Messages in Bottles
Today, some scientists and oceanographers use messages in bottles to study global currents. They launch thousands of such bottles into the ocean at a time, usually from ships that are anchored at specific coordinates. Then they wait—in many cases, decades or more—for those bottles to be discovered. In one such study in the year 2000, climate researcher Eddy Carmack of the Institute of Ocean Science in Canada cast out around 6,400 bottles. By 2012, only 4% of these bottles had been recovered, with many mysteries of the tides still yet unknown.
A Practice Best Left in the Past
Scientists may still deploy various message-in-a-bottle tactics to study ocean currents as they continue to evolve in the changing climate. But there are good reasons for the novice message creator to reconsider, and the biggest of these is the toll on the environment. While these messages have been known to travel thousands of miles around the world, and have given us a trove of interesting stories, messages in bottles can be a sneaky contributor to ocean pollution.
Beyond the contamination aspect, there’s also the fact that bottles can become damaged by the elements over time, and their shards (whether glass, plastic or otherwise) can pose a threat to marine life. Even when the bottles remain intact, they can ultimately break down over time from salt and UV light. In those cases, they can release harmful chemicals, microplastics and other compounds into the ocean water.