It’s a classic image: a rolled-up piece of paper, perhaps a letter, placed inside a glass bottle with a cork in the mouth set to sea. Eventually, someone finds it and becomes the letter’s recipient.
Originally, these “drift bottles”, as they’re sometimes called, weren’t meant to be one-way correspondences, they served a scientific purpose. They were used as tools to study ocean currents. The earliest reference to drift bottles was in 310 B.C.E. when the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, used drift bottles to test his hypothesis that the Atlantic Ocean current fed into the Mediterranean Sea.
In the 1800s, plenty of countries sent out their own drift bottles to study ocean current paths. Each bottle contained the ship’s name, the drop location coordinates, and the date it was released. Instructions were included so the finder could contact the proper authorities to report the data. Thousands of these bottles were released from vessels of American, German, Scottish and other nationalities in the name of science.
Nowadays, we use more high-tech equipment than a piece of paper and a glass bottle. NOAA frequently deploys buoys with radio or satellite equipment to signal its location to ships or land bases. There are also devices like the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler that can be attached to the bottom of ships or sent to the seafloor to calculate the speed and direction of ocean currents. Radio waves can be used to measure surface ocean currents from land as well.
Despite our advancements in oceanography research, people are still chucking objects into the Ocean in the name of ocean current studies when we really don’t need to intentionally throw something overboard to find out where it will wash-up and how long it will take.
We already have an accidental ocean current experiment that has had greater attention and feedback than those drift bottle experiments over a century ago. In 1992, a container on a cargo ship sailing from Hong Kong went overboard with 28,000 bath toys inside. Called the “Friendly Floatees”, rubber ducks have been washing ashore from the Pacific and Atlantic for the past 26 years from this same shipment. In case you’ve wondered how long it takes for an object to complete a circuit around the Northern Pacific Gyre, it’s 3 years. There are entire websites where people post pictures of the rubber ducks they’ve found, and where they’ve been found. The incident has been good (in a making the best of a bad situation kind of way) for providing information about ocean currents and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in which there are still around 2,000 of the little Floatees.
Look, I understand the urge. It’s the romance of it all. Either in literature or in the news, we receive all these wonderful stories about messages in a bottle. I enjoy them, too.
During WWI, Pvt Thomas Hughes wrote a message in a bottle to wife and threw it into the English Channel two days before his death. It finally appeared in the River Thames 86 years later, too late for his wife but not too late to send to his daughter who was one year old at the time of his death.
In one miraculous incident during this century, a group of Costa Rican migrants were saved by a message in a bottle. Left stranded on a boat that was smuggling them out of the country, the passengers—mostly teenagers—were left without means of radio communication and sent out a message for help the old-fashioned way, a drift bottle which was quickly discovered by a fisherman who contacted the workers of a nearby World Heritage site to rescue them.
The latter story is truly exceptional, just by the sheer statistic of it working. From a Canadian project, it’s averaged that one out of 25 drift bottles sent out are found—and that’s not mentioning how long they usually spend at sea. This Canadian project is called the Drift Bottle Project, founded in 2000. The project encourages citizens to send out their own “drop bottles” to contribute to the project. The project is still active 18 years later.
Objectively, I see the appeal to this, too. It’s like a country-wide science project that anyone who’s in reach of the Ocean can participate in. Plus, the thrill that must be had if someone responds to the found drift bottles from the other side of the Ocean or the world!
But I ask, all of you, would you throw a bottle overboard without a message inside? Probably not, you think, then it’s just littering. Then, why does a piece of paper make a difference? Remember, only one in 25 are found. The rest stay in the Ocean or wind up buried in sand on a beach somewhere. Plastic or glass, it will break open, leaking water inside. Paper breaks down in 2.5 months, even faster when it’s wet. But the bottle won’t decompose so quickly. It will break and become part of the soupy mess in the garbage patch of whatever ocean or sea you threw it into.
Look, I’m disappointed, too. I swear I don’t usually look for the negative in everything, but this is important. I’m not saying all the magic is gone. It isn’t!
All I’m asking is that we don’t throw anymore bottles overboard. The best part about drift bottles isn’t sending them out, it’s finding them. The romance is alive, the magical feeling of discovery is still there. Drift bottles from the 1800s are still being found today! In January, an Australian woman was picking up trash on a local beach when she discovered a bottle with a message from 1886. It’s the oldest drift bottle message found to date.
So, I suggest that the next time you head to a beach, do a little cleanup. You may find a message that was once lost to time and the waves.
Want to know more about the Friendly Floatees? Check here.
The Drift Bottle Project site. (Notice they don't mention anything about Garbage Patches in the world's oceans.)