There’s something undeniably romantic about tossing a message into the ocean and seeing to whom fate — abetted by the currents and wind — might deliver the marine missive.
Messages have been slipped into bottles and shipped on mysterious voyages at least since 310 B.C., when Greek philosopher Theophrastus employed the tactic to test his theory that the Atlantic flows into the Mediterranean Sea. And in fact, so-called “drift bottles” are still employed as a means of charting ocean currents.
But aside from researchers studying oceanic circulation, there are many other motives that compel people to cork up their words and send them on seafaring adventures. From rescue pleas and sad farewells to random notes, messages in bottles are a curious antidote to the high-speed modes of communication we’ve come accustomed to. The following are some of the more remarkable tales describing the journeys of messages delivered by the sea.
1. Castaways revealed
In 1794, a Japanese seaman named Chunosuke Matsuyama and his 43 companions were caught in a storm and shipwrecked on a South Pacific island. Without supplies, all of the crew eventually expired; but not before Matsuyama wrote a message telling of their misfortune, carved in coconut wood and slipped in a bottle. No one knew what had become of the group until the bottle was discovered 150 years later near the Japanese village of Hiraturemura.
2. Ghost message from the Titanic
Jeremiah Burke, 19, from Glanmire in Cork and his cousin Nora Hegarty, 18, boarded the ill-fated Titanic to meet up with his sisters who had settled in Boston a few years earlier. Before setting sail, Burke’s mother gave him a bottle of holy water. As the Titanic began her descent into the sea, Burke managed to write a message, "From Titanic, goodbye all, Burke of Glanmire, Cork," which he placed in the holy water bottle. The cousins died in the tragedy, and a year later, the bottle washed ashore a few miles from his family home. The artifacts were kept in the family for nearly a century before being donated to the Cobh Heritage Centre in 2011.
3. And 85 years later…
In 1914, British World War I soldier Pvt. Thomas Hughes wrote a letter to his wife, sealed it in a ginger ale bottle, and tossed it into the English Channel. He died two days later fighting in France. Fast forward to 1999 when a fisherman found the bottle in the River Thames. It was too late to deliver the letter to Mrs. Hughes who died in 1979, but not too late for Hughes’ 86-year-old daughter, who was only 1 year old when her father died — the message was delivered to her at her home in New Zealand.
4. A German experiment
In 2018, Tonya Illman was walking around sand dunes on Wedge Island (near Perth, Australia) when she discovered an old gin bottle with a rolled up paper tied with string inside. The paper was dated June 12, 1886 and was from a German vessel. Apparently from 1864 to 1933, several German ships would toss bottles with messages inside overboard. The notes would contain the ship coordinates, the date and its route. The German Naval Observatory wanted to learn more about ocean currents much like the "drift bottles' of ancient times. Therefore, the notes would ask people to write where and when they discovered the bottle and return it. A local maritime museum verified the note, and the bottle is currently on display.
5. The record holder
In 2011, a Scottish fisherman named Andrew Leaper was pulling in his haul near the Shetland Islands when he spied a bottle in the catch. Within, he discovered an old letter, a very old letter — in fact, it was certified as the oldest message in a bottle ever found by the Guinness Book of World Records. The message was scrawled by Capt. C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation and was sent to sea in 1914 along with a whopping 1,889 other bottles. A government agency in Aberdeen continues to track Brown’s project; to date, 315 of his castoffs have been recovered.
6. Unfinished business
When the ocean liner the Lusitania, was struck by a torpedo on her 1915 journey from New York to Liverpool, it took a mere 18 minutes for her to sink. But that was long enough for one passenger to reportedly pen perhaps the most poignant and eerie message in a bottle yet recovered: "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…" What the writer hoped the note might do is a secret forever swallowed by the sea.
7. Love potion
In 1956, long before match.com was an option, a lovesick Swedish sailor by the name of Ake Viking took his search for love to the salt water. A quick message, “To Someone Beautiful and Far Away,” was corked in a bottle and dispatched into the ocean. Two years later, Viking’s plea was answered by a Sicilian woman named Paolina. “I am not beautiful, but it seems so miraculous that this little bottle should have traveled so far and long to reach me that I must send you an answer,” she replied. The two began a correspondence that ended in Viking’s move to Sicily to marry his match made by the sea.
8. Memo to mom
Ten years ago, a 10-year-old girl from Manhattan was visiting friends in Long Island when she scribbled a message and threw it in the ocean, enclosed in a ginger ale bottle. The bottle containing the missive written by Sidonie Fery was discovered this year by a crew cleaning up beach debris from Superstorm Sandy. But what made this discovery, and its subsequent return, so poignant is that Fery died in a tragic fall from a cliff in Switzerland in 2010. The message, which was passed on to Fery’s grieving mother, was a simple but profound reminder: “Be excellent to yourself, Dude.”
In 2005, more than 80 mostly-teenaged migrants were abandoned on a boat off the coast of Costa Rica. Left on the crippled vessel by the crew who was illegally smuggling the passengers, they were adrift without any means of typical communication. They ingeniously popped an SOS into a bottle that was miraculously found by fisherman, who delivered the message of “Please help us” to the denizens of a nearby World Heritage site island. The workers there alerted their headquarters, the lost-at-sea drifters were rescued, and the group was taken to the island to recover.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2013.