In April 2009, an experiment for his marine science class, a high school student put a letter in a bottle, sealed it and dropped it in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Florida coast. In the letter, he appealed to whomever came across the bottle to contact him and let him know where in the world it showed up. Amazingly, someone did.
About 16 months after the bottle was dropped, Swearingen’s marine science teacher heard from someone in Ireland. The letter had made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and washed up on the shores of the Emerald Isle, found by a 17-year-old and his Dad while out for a stroll. Swearingen said he never expected the message to be found. The wine bottle is on display in a local Irish pub.
This is not the first message in a bottle to survive a perilous journey. This list presents ten famous documented cases of the “Message In A Bottle” SOS actually working.
10. Emily Hwaung
In December 2008, Merle Brandell was beach combing near his village of Nelson Lagoon, Alaska, when he found something unusual. Floating amid a crowd of Japanese glass floats was a plastic soda bottle with a letter inside, yellowed and ripped at the seams. The return address was North City Elementary School in Shoreline.
“Dear Finder,” the letter read. “My name is Emily Hwaung and I am in fourth grade at North City School. This letter is part of our science project to study oceans and learn about people in distant lands. Please send the date and location of the bottle with your address. I will send you my picture and tell you when and where the bottle was placed in the ocean. Your friend, Emily Hwaung”. The bottle was found 21 years after being sent, and when Emily received a call from Mr Brandell to tell her of his find, you can imagine the surprise. She said it “gave her goosebumps”.
9. Pepsi Spells Sex
Although this message is in a can, and not a bottle, it is quite interesting. In a promotional campaign by Pepsi in 1990, the company sold cans with a neon-design. If you stack two of those cans and turn them just right, the word SEX becomes readable. Intentional or not, it proves that subliminal ads can work after all. Fact or fantasy? Purpose or coincidence?
8. Private Thomas Hughes
In 1999, a fisherman spotted something clinging to his nets. Turns out it was a bottle containing two letters written by Private Thomas Hughes, dated September 9, 1914. The first message asked the person that found the bottle to forward the second message to Hughes’ wife, Elizabeth. The second, a note for Elizabeth, was a nice, simple love letter, showing that his wife was in his thoughts as he made his way to France to fight in the early days of World War I.
The fisherman who found the bottle searched for her descendants and soon learned that Thomas and Elizabeth Hughes’ daughter was still alive in Auckland, New Zealand. The story was so spectacular that the New Zealand government paid for him to fly there and deliver the note from the bottle to the grand daughter of its original author.
7. Auschwitz Prisoners
Not all messages in bottles are thrown in the sea. In 2009 a letter written by Auschwitz prisoners in 1944 was discovered by construction workers in Poland. The workmen were renovating a cellar near to the Nazi concentration camp when they found the note rolled up inside a bottle. Dated September 9, 1944, the message – handwritten in pencil – gives the names, camp numbers and hometowns of seven prisoners – six from Poland and one from France. All were aged between 18 and 20. At least two of them survived the war. Museum experts have verified the authenticity of the note.
6. European Jews in WWII
When over 800 Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany in 1939, they fully expected to be granted asylum in Cuba. But the Cuban President Frederico Bru refused them entry, and their ship the SS St Louis remained in Havana Harbour for 10 days. Reputedly hundreds of messages in bottles were thrown into the harbour, typically pleading “Please help us President Bru or we will be lost.” Many of these bottles were later found along the east coast of the USA. Some were even found in Europe up to the 1960s.
5. Chunosuke Matsuyama
In 1784, Japanese seaman, Chunosuke Matsuyama who was shipwrecked along with 44 shipmates carved a message on a piece of wood and placed it in a bottle. It was not found until 150 years later, too late for their rescue but amazing nonetheless.
4. The English Navy
The English Navy used messages in bottles to send information about enemy positions and other intelligence reports. After finding out that a boatman at Dover had opened a bottle containing an intelligence report, Queen Elizabeth I created a new job position: “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”. The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles was the only one permitted to open found bottles. All others who found and opened bottles would be put to death.
3. Christopher Columbus
In the days of early explorers, traveling by ship and shipwrecks were common. Once, when Christopher Columbus was caught up in a severe storm, he wrote a report of his discoveries, along with a note asking that his report be passed on to the Queen of Spain. Christopher Columbus recorded in his log that his ship Nina was struggling in a wild storm in the middle of the Atlantic. Afraid that he might not survive, Columbus composed a report of his situation, placed it inside a sealed cask and threw it overboard. His message asked the finder to notify the Spanish Queen and, though it is clearly documented as having being sent, has not yet turned up.
Although no one knows for sure when the first message in a bottle was released, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus is the first known person to release a message in a bottle. He released a message in a bottle into the Mediterranean around 310 BC as an experiment to show how water flowed into it from the Atlantic Ocean.
1. Benjamin Franklin
When he was postmaster general for the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin realized that, because their whaler captains knew the currents much better than their English counterparts, American ships were crossing the Atlantic much quicker than the British mail packets. He therefore compiled a chart using both the whalers’ lore and information he obtained by dropping bottles into the Gulf Stream and asking the finders to return them. The information he recorded is little changed today.
Warm surface currents (shown in red) are mainly driven by winds and the Earth’s rotation. They flow from the tropics to temperate latitudes. Conversely, cold surface currents (shown in blue) flow from temperate and polar latitudes towards the equator. Note how the larger currents move clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. The most famous current is the Gulf Stream running from the Gulf of Mexico (hence its name) towards the North Atlantic. It can exceed 7 kph and on average would fill a cubic kilometre every ten seconds. But other currents can be much slower, for example the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is three times the size of the Gulf Stream but barely exceeds 1 kph. Note how the equator seems to act like a fence — currents brush past it but seldom cross it.
BONUS: The Police Song
Had to throw this one in for fun, since it is the best known message in a bottle of modern times. The hit song commemorated the romantic loneliness and desperation associated with casting a message to the open oceans in the hope that someone would find the “island lost at sea”, and then discovering that you are really not alone after all.
First-ever live performance of “Message in a Bottle” by the Police. Song had not yet been released. Filmed for a Brit TV show called “Rock Goes to College” filmed at Hatfield Polytechnic College.