Last April, Scottish skipper Andrew Leaper was pulling in his nets near the Shetland Islands, like he had so many times before, when something different caught his eye. It was a bottle, but it was no piece of trash floating by. Inside the bottle was a letter: a very old letter.
He didn't know it at the moment he hauled it in, but Leaper had inadvertently scooped up the oldest message in a bottle ever found, reports National Geographic. The message was nearly 98 years old, which according to the Guinness Book of World Records beats the previous record holder by about three years.
What did the message say? Romantics hoping for a centuries-old love story or a desperate plea from a long-lost castaway might be disappointed. Verbatim, it read: "Please state where and when this card was found, and then put it in the nearest Post Office. You will be informed in reply where and when it was set adrift. Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea."
In other words, the letter's author was not some forlorn, heartbroken mistress. It was just a knowledge-seeking scientist hoping to better understand the ocean currents. Even so, there is an interesting story behind it.
The letter was written by Capt. C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation and was set adrift in 1914 along with 1,889 others. Incredibly, an Aberdeen-based government agency, Marine Scotland Science, still keeps track of Captain Brown's log. The bottle was just the 315th recovered from Brown's experiment, which means there could still be many more out there.
"Drift bottles gave oceanographers at the start of the last century important information that allowed them to create pictures of the patterns of water circulation in the seas around Scotland," explained Bill Turrell from Marine Scotland Science.
Despite being adrift for nearly 98 years, the bottle was recovered just 9.38 nautical miles from where it was first released. The reason it didn't travel far is probably due to the fact that it was "specially weighted to bob along the seabed," said Turrell. Another incredible coincidence about this finding is that the previous record holder for the oldest message in a bottle was found by a different captain of the same ship on which Leaper was sailing, the Copious. That's one lucky ship.
Interestingly, drift bottles are still used by oceanographers today. One such experiment, called the Drift Bottle Project, has launched 6,400 bottled messages from ships around the world. Some of the early results have revealed some extraordinary journeys. Three bottles set adrift from northern Alaska were found to have crossed the Arctic Sea and landed in northern Europe. Another bottle was recorded to completely circle Antarctica before washing ashore on Tasmania.
Who knows, perhaps in a century one of these bottles will get scooped up too, setting a record of its own.