Science & Technology

The Oldest Message in a Bottle Ever Found Just Washed Up on Shore

There's something so surreal and romantic about a message in a bottle. What could it say? "Stranded on desert island"? "Send help"? "Guess my favorite Police song"? Well, one Australian woman just found a bottle of her own, and inside was a message from the German Consulate circa 1886. It's the oldest known message in a bottle ever recovered.

Bottle and the Beach

There are a lot of bottles floating in the ocean, and you might be surprised to learn how many of them contain secret messages. But the latest one to wash up on the beach is something special: it was floating out there on the waves for nearly 132 years. Tonya Illman, an Australian woman from Perth, was out for a walk with her husband Kym when they spotted something wedged in a nearby dune. Thinking it might look nice cleaned up and placed on her mantle, Tonya picked up the dark brown bottle and noticed something inside. At first, she thought it was a rolled-up cigarette, but it turned out to be something much more exciting.

The cork was long gone, so it was easy for the Illmans to tip the bottle over and pour out its contents. It was a tightly wound note with a fragile piece of string around it. That's right — the note stayed intact for all that time even though the bottle didn't have a top. Since sand dunes can be surprisingly mobile, experts think that the bottle actually came ashore a little while ago, and the cork popped out after it dried.

The Tillmans put the note in the oven to dry it out before they finally unrolled it. They couldn't believe what they saw. Inscribed on the note was the date June 12, 1886, along with a bunch of official-looking German words and the name of a ship, the Paula. They thought it must have been some sort of trick or promotion, but after plugging the German into Google Translate and looking up the history of the Paula, they realized it might be real after all.

Lost and Found

So what did the note actually say? We hate to disappoint you — it's not a message from a marooned ship, and it's not a lovelorn letter thrown dramatically to the sea. Actually, it was thrown in the ocean for exactly this purpose: to find out how long it would take for it to arrive on land (or at least, in another sailor's hands). Translated from the original German, the note bears the following message:

This bottle was thrown overboard on June 12, 1886 at latitude 32° 49' South and longitude 105° 25' from Greenwich East.

From: Bark Ship Paula, Port: Elsfleth, Captain: D [illegible], On her journey from Cardiff to Macassar.

The finder is requested to send the slip in the bottle to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest consulate for the return to the same agency after filling in the information on the back.

Part of the Paula's mission was a meteorological study to see exactly how the ocean currents moved in relation to each other. To do that, she left a trail of bottles in her wake. About 10 percent of those bottles eventually made their way back to Hamburg, but this last one took its sweet time. It's actually pretty astonishing that it survived so long — the last one of the bottles from that voyage to have been discovered turned up in 1934. Now that this bottle is freshly inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records, it just goes to show how even the relatively recent past is still full of surprises.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 8, 2018

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