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Sending Messages in Bottles, Explained

There’s an enchanting allure to discovering a message rolled up in a bottle, dreaming up the journey it must have taken to arrive in this particular time and place. Compared to the quick, mindless way we text or email messages today, that hand-written note could have bobbed up and down for hundreds of miles for weeks — or even years — to make its way from sender to unknown recipient.

“People have been sending messages in bottles for centuries for all kinds of reasons,” said Clint Buffington, who started Message in a Bottle Hunter after he found a message in the Turks and Caicos and spent a year tracking down its senders. “Some seek love, friendship, or scientific data about ocean currents, and others hope to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Some send messages in bottles as jokes or hoaxes, and still others send them in memory of lost loved ones. Many of the oldest messages in bottles were sent out of simple curiosity by regular people.”

That wide range of motives is part of its appeal. Here’s a look back at the history of sending messages in a bottle, many of which are likely still floating around in the oceans.

Prehistoric Roots

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While the exact origins of the tradition will never be known, many believe one of the earliest records of tucking messages into sealed containers goes all the way back to around 310 BCE. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle and became the Lyceum head after Aristotle’s retirement, is believed to have sent bottles into the sea for what appeared to be a scientific reason: He wanted to confirm that the Mediterranean Sea was created from waters flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.

The next known use of them was nearly two millennia later over in the United Kingdom, when Queen Elizabeth I suspected the mode of communication was being used to send secret messages by spies in the 16th century. She made it a crime to open any sealed bottles found from the sea, and even established an “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” position, only allowing that person to open all the found bottles.

Messages of Distress

RMS Titanic in the water.
Credit: Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Along with stories of its function are also those unbelievable tales of found bottles. A Japanese seaman named Chunosuke Matsuyama, who was shipwrecked on a South Pacific island in the 18th century, is said to have inscribed a message into coconut wood, which was discovered hundreds of years later in 1935. While that may already seem implausible, it was supposedly found in Hiraturemura, Matsuyama’s hometown, either a stroke of crazy coincidence or the work of a fable teller.

Either way, the use of bottled-up messages in times of distress seemed to become commonplace. Jeremiah Burke was aboard the Titanic’s fateful trip with a holy water bottle that his mom had given him. He used that bottle and chucked it into the sea as the ship sank in 1912. A year later, it was found ashore in Ireland, not far from where his family lived. Inside, the note read: “From Titanic, goodbye all, Burke of Glanmire, Cork."

That wasn’t the only trace of the messages being used for final words. World War I soldiers were also thought to seal up their messages. A passenger on sinking RMS Lusitania in 1915 reportedly wrote: "Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast. Some men near me are praying with a priest. The end is near. Maybe this note will—"

A letter stuffed in a green ginger beer bottle and tossed into the English Channel in 1914 by Private Thomas Hughes as he went off to fight in France for WWI was found nearly 85 years later in the River Thames and delivered to his daughter, now living in New Zealand. The note read: “Dear Wife, I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says receipt. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby.”

Water wasn’t always necessary either, as a message in a bottle was found “bricked up” by Auschwitz victims in 1944. The rolled up paper contained the names, camp numbers, and hometowns of seven prisoners, who were between the ages of 18 and 20. "These were young people who tried to leave at least some sort of proof of their existence," said Jaroslav Mensfelt, historian with the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

Scientific Research

Aerial view of a whirlpool in the ocean.
Credit: Letowa/ Shutterstock

While there sometimes is a beauty of the happenstance of where the bottles flow, of course there’s also a scientific reasoning behind how the currents flow. Starting in 1846, the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey launched bottles in hopes of collecting data points on ocean currents. One that was launched from its ship Hydrographer in 1959 was found in Martha’s Vineyard 54 years later in 2013.

Canada's Institute of Ocean Science researcher Eddy Eddy Carmack started the Drift Bottle Project in 2000, having launched at least 6,400 bottles, and 12 years later, about 264 of them had been found. "The main thing about this study is that it connects people with the currents of the ocean," he said. "We find that we are only a bottle drop away from our neighbors around the world."

Environment Impact

A clear glass bottle washed up on the beach, with a note inside.
Credit: urbancow/ iStock

In 1996, fisherman Harold Hackett started sending thousands of messages in bottles from Prince Edward Island. His response rate was pretty staggering — he received more than 3,100 responses to his 4,800 messages. Hackett gave himself the moniker “The Bottleman” and kept on throwing them, estimating he had launched about 10,000 bottles by 2018.

But that’s when the environmental impact caught up with him. "We appreciate Mr. Hackett's interest in connecting with people around the world and know he means no harm, but we do remind all Islanders that we need to protect our waterways by following the rules designed to preserve our environment,” P.E.I.'s Department of Justice and Public Safety said, confirming that his action was considered littering and that the plastic debris was wreaking havoc on the environment. “It hurts me to stop … but I mean, I gotta go by what they say,” Hackett said.

One alternative that has been suggested to keep the tradition alive is moving to wooden blocks. A research project in Germany called Makroplastik Nordsee has sent the “drifters” out to sea with the goal of combatting plastic pollution in the oceans. Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies professor Tony Walker said, “Wooden blocks ultimately will degrade, so they don't have a legacy pollution impact on the environment.”

While the future of messages in a bottle looks to become more eco-friendly, the idea of sending a message out into the ether remains captivating, no matter what form it takes.

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