Message in a Bottle
From history and myth to modern day science, floating time capsules can tell us a lot about the sea and inland waterways.
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The idea of sending or receiving a “message in a bottle” has had a nautical élan for centuries. Theoprahastus, a Greek philosopher, is credited with throwing the first sealed bottles into the water around 310 BC into the Mediterranean. It was reported that he had no responses. In more modern times, the rock band The Police sang about “sending out an SOS,” while Hollywood immortalized the concept in the movie “Message in a Bottle.” In the film, Robin Wright Penn discovers a poetic and heartrending letter in a bottle that sets her off in search of its author, Kevin Costner.
On a much more practical bent, for over two decades oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer has been keeping an eye on a different kind of “message in a bottle” — 29,000 rubber ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs that accidentally went overboard in 1992 from a containership in the Pacific. Winds and currents routed thousands of the toys to Alaska, where many washed ashore. Others traveled the Bering Straight and are now frozen in an Arctic icepack. Yet more were discovered, many years later, bobbing off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts. These animals are carrying a romantic message of their own, that of critical scientific data.
In more local waters, Minneapolis attorney Brian Toder has done his own unofficial current research. He spent the summers of his youth on the sea tossing bottles overboard around the world. In 1971, as a recent high school graduate, he tossed the one bottle that would ultimately garner him a response into the Gulf waters off Mobile, Ala. It was found the following November by Pat Bernick while she was walking her dog along the shore of Indialantic, Fla., 30 miles south of Cape Kennedy on the Atlantic coast. Based on his bottle, Toder, now an attorney who worked on the Exxon Valdez case, surmised that some of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill could possibly travel over time from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast.
On a larger scale, scientists are using everything from special bottles known as “drift bottles” to rubber ducks, dog food, oranges, wood chips, green dye, hula hoops, peat moss, popcorn and rice hulls to predict the track of potential future oil spills in high-risk areas and set up preparedness plans.
One Man’s Trash...
Most bottles, however, have more of a human-interest bent. Chad Pregracke has found so many bottles with messages in them that he made the national news in USA Today. The president of the non-profit cleanup group Living Lands & Waters based in East Moline, Ill., Pregracke and his crew have found an astounding 70+ messages in bottles as they trawl rivers from the Mississippi to the Potomac, removing trash along the way.
The messages have ranged from several fake treasure maps to dollar bills (perhaps a more expensive take on tossing a penny in a fountain for luck?) to the expected love notes. There was even a song complete with sheet music. When he’s had enough information, Pregracke has contacted the bottle tossers, who are normally pretty excited to hear their bottle has been retrieved.
Some bottles contain memorial messages and notes to lost loved ones. Out of respect, Pregracke and his group save all the bottles retrieved. His nephew, Krist Pregracke, was inspired to toss his own bottle into the water. It was later retrieved by an elementary school teacher near Carbondale, Ill.
A bottle containing messages from James Prosser’s family, memorializing Prosser, who had fallen in Afghanistan, traveled an impressive 1,300 miles. It was set adrift in Barbados and floated to Home Island, Miss., a place Prosser’s mother says was fitting, as it was facing it’s own difficult times during the Gulf oil spill clean-up.