A 132-year-old message in a bottle surfaced on an Australian beach earlier this year, but it’s not a love note or a treasure map: it’s a science experiment.
Tonya Illman walked the beach with a friend as they waited for her son’s car to be dug out of the soft sand. Then she saw it. “I saw something sticking out of the sand, so I went to take a closer look,” she told the Western Australian Museum. “It just looked like a nice old bottle, so I picked it up thinking it might look good on my bookcase. My son’s girlfriend was the one who discovered the note when she went to dump the sand. ”
When the Illmans unrolled the damp sheet of paper, they found a printed form, filled out in very vague handwriting—in German.
“This bottle was thrown overboard at 12e June 1886, at 32 degrees, 49 minutes latitude and 105 degrees, 25 minutes longitude from Greenwich East,” it read. “From: Barkship Paula. Home (harbour): Elsfleth.”
The captain’s name was illegible, but the form read that de Paula “On her voyage from: Cardiff [Wales] to: Macassar [modern-day Indonesia].” According to the coordinates on the form, the Paula’s crew had thrown the note overboard about 600 miles from the coast in the Indian Ocean.
It resurfaced 132 years later, in January 2018, half-buried in the sand of an Australian beach north of Wedge Island, about 100 miles north of the city of Perth. Researchers say the bottle likely washed ashore within a year of hitting the water, but was eventually buried in damp sand until a storm exposed it. If the bottle hadn’t been buried, the note might not have survived at all.
Old Fashioned Science
Illman’s husband Kym traced the mold and bottle to an oceanography experiment started in 1864 by the German Naval Observatory. In an effort to map faster shipping routes by mapping the world’s ocean currents, German ships threw thousands of bottles overboard from 1864 to 1933. each with a form containing the date and coordinates of the message, along with the ship’s name, home port, and route it had sailed at the time.
On the back of the form, the finder was asked to write the date and location of the find and then return the form to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or to the nearest German consulate. Of the thousands of molds thrown into the world’s seas during the 69-year program, only 662 had been recovered — at least 20 of them around the Australian coast. The latter had surfaced on the coast of Denmark on January 7, 1934, a few months after the project’s official end.
The Illmans’ find brought the total to 663, but they had to confirm it first.
“Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them,” said Ross Anderson, assistant curator of maritime archeology at the Western Australian Museum, where the Illmans took the bottle and note to help with the investigation. Museum staff identified the “beautiful old bottle” as a Dutch gin bottle from the mid to late 1800s. And the rolled paper looked like cheaply made 19e century paper, the kind you would expect a mass-produced government form to be printed on.
Anderson and his colleagues reached out to historians in Germany and the Netherlands for more information, and they were very lucky. “Unbelievably, an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original Meteorological Journal and there was a note made for June 12, 1886 by the captain, recording that a drift bottle had been thrown overboard,” Anderson said. And the handwriting in Paula’s log was identical to the handwriting on the form.
The Illmans have loaned the bottle and note to the Western Australian Museum, where it will be on display for the next two years.
Science keeps floating
Oceanographers are still trying to get a better understanding of ocean currents, especially how they deal with wind and waves, and the basic method hasn’t changed much in the last 132 years.
“The time-honored method is by releasing small floating objects and observing where the drift takes them,” wrote the authors of a 2012 paper that used data from the 1864-1933 German Naval Observatory flasks to measure surface drift in the Southern Ocean. to study.
However, more modern drift studies now use satellite-tracked floats that don’t rely on luck or the cooperation of finders to get the data back to scientists. A 2015 paper compared two different float designs; the red float in the image followed the blue route on the map, while the orange spherical float followed the red route on the map.
But that doesn’t mean oceanographers will turn down a bit of luck when it arrives. Drift studies have also been conducted with floating charges accidentally washed overboard at a known point, including Lego bricks and rubber ducks.