ShareThis Page
World

132 years later, world's oldest message in a bottle surfaces

| Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 7:21 p.m.
The world’s oldest message in a bottle was recently discovered on a beach in Western Australia 132 years after it was tossed into the Indian Ocean as part of a long-term German Naval Observatory program studying global ocean currents.
KymIllman.com
The world’s oldest message in a bottle was recently discovered on a beach in Western Australia 132 years after it was tossed into the Indian Ocean as part of a long-term German Naval Observatory program studying global ocean currents.

Before there were computers and GPS beacons to track the ocean's whims, there were slips of paper and bottles.

Or more specifically, slips of paper in bottles.

The world's oldest message in a bottle was recently discovered on a beach in Western Australia 132 years after it was tossed into the Indian Ocean as part of an experiment on ocean drift patterns, according to experts who call it “an exceedingly rare find.”

A report released by the Western Australia Museum details how the bottle was found and what its well-preserved message reveals about science and history.

The dark green glass bottle, which measured less than nine inches long and three inches wide, was found in January north of Perth by a woman named Tonya Illman, according to a museum press release Tuesday that quotes Illman on the surprising discovery. She and a friend were walking along the dunes when she saw it near where her son's car had become bogged in soft sand.

“It just looked like a lovely old bottle, so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase,” Illman said. “My son's girlfriend was the one who discovered the note when she went to tip the sand out. The note was damp, rolled tightly and wrapped with string. We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”

After some research and excitement, the family not knowing if what they found was “historically significant or a very inventive hoax,” brought their discovery to the museum. Experts there took detailed measurements of everything from the opening of the bottle to the twine wrapped around the yellowed paper inside of it. There was no cork, and researchers believe it may have dried out, shrunk and became dislodged at some point. Because the paper was so well preserved, they also believe the bottle probably washed onto shore within a year of being thrown and lay buried for more than a century in damp sand.

On the paper were two significant details: the date June 12, 1886, and the name of a ship, “Paula.”

More digging, along with help from authorities in the Netherlands and Germany, revealed that the bottle was part of a long-term German Naval Observatory program studying global ocean currents. An entry in the Paula's Meteorological Journal written by the captain detailed the bottle being tossed overboard on the same date listed on the paper. The handwriting also matched his, down to the extra curl in his Cs.

The museum's report lauds the discovery's scientific significance.

“Ocean current and drift patterns are still not completely understood,” it reads. “The need to understand long-term climate change patterns has also seen historic data, such as that recorded in Paula's meteorological journal and other 19th century ships' logbooks, added as datasets into global climate models.”

The report links the bottle to German scientist George von Neumayer, who implemented a drift bottle experiment from 1864 to 1933 that involved thousands of bottles being thrown overboard with pre-printed message slips inside. Ship captains were expected to write in details on one side of the paper, and those who found the bottles were asked to fill out the back and return the notes to either to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest German Consulate.

Only 662 message slips were returned.

Before the latest discovery, the last one was found in January 1934.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me