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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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Finding a message in a bottle.

In perhaps the shortest bottle journey of all, a Chicago man proposed to his fiancé by tossing a bottle that contained his written proposal into the Lake Michigan surf expecting it to wash back ashore for his girlfriend to find. Ironically, the bottle was caught in a current and taken further out, so he had to repeat the plan the following evening. This time, he didn’t toss the bottle so far into the tide.

As a class project in Lancashire, England, young students tossed bottles into the sea. Alesha Johnson, then 4, tossed her plastic Coca-Cola bottle with all her might, but it landed just a few feet in front of her and everyone assumed it would later wash back into the same shore. How wrong they were. Instead, the bottle and message were recovered at a boatyard in Perth, Australia. This most improbable journey took the missive into the Atlantic, then towards the Southern Hemisphere via the west coast of Africa, then across the wild waters of the Indian Ocean.

Odds on Favorite
What is perhaps the oddest message/bottle combination is that of a PostIt in an aspirin bottle that led Steve Hartman, a CBS News correspondent, from Waikiki Beach in Hawaii to Ona, W.Va. The bottle was cracked from rough treatment in the ocean and contained a battered note that Hartman had to reconstruct. The short letter was written as a memorial from Lorretta Cooper, who was later profiled in a CBS news segment, to her late sister Clara Chapman.

Sending out an S.O.S. can and does occasionally work. Such was the case for a grateful boatload full of teenagers from Ecuador and Peru, who were rescued from their disabled vessel after three days of drifting aimlessly off of Cocos Island, a nature reserve 372 miles off the Costa Rican coast. The simple “Please Help Us” message they tossed overboard was found by a local fisherman who alerted park wardens, who affected the search and rescue.

One notable bottle with a rescue message hasn’t been in the water at all. It is S.O.S. (Save Our Shore) Pilsner by Abita. It’s a “distress signal for the troubled waters of our Gulf Coast.” Seventy-five cents from every bottle goes towards the cause. This is the same company who brought us Restoration Pale Ale, which raised $500,000 for Hurricane Katrina recovery projects.

Then and Now
Messages in bottles reached a peak during the 16th century. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I of England even created the official position of Uncorker of Ocean Bottles. This was mainly because the British fleet sent messages about enemy movement to those ashore in bottles. As a result, there was a hefty fine for a lay person who opened a sea bottle. Spies of that era also used this sea-going method of communication.

Perhaps the most macabre message in a bottle, and one that sounds like it is out of a Stephen King novel but is real, was from a passenger on board the torpedoed Lusitania. The message, which was retrieved much later, reportedly said: “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....”

The oldest message in a bottle, according to the Guinness World Records, is a note that spent 97 years and 309 days at sea. It was sent by Captain C.H. Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation back in 1914 as part of scientific research on currents. It was pulled up in a fish net by Andrew Leaper aboard the Scottish vessel Copious. On a too-strange-to-be-made-up note, this is the same boat that discovered the prior record-holding bottle originally launched in 1917.

The fervor for drama associated with a message in a bottle hasn’t waned. The Internet contains a variety of websites on how to properly address, package and toss a bottle to increase your chances of a return message, and it’s estimated that thousands of bottles are tossed into rivers, waterways and oceans each year. At, users can write a message that’s put into a “virtual bottle” and cast adrift on the Internet Sea, where it will be found by another user anywhere from a week to six months later.

Happy bottle-hunting!

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