The world’s oldest known message in a bottle has been found in Western Australia nearly 132 years after it was dropped overboard in the Indian Ocean, 950km from the coast.
The message is dated 12 June 1886 and was set adrift from the German sailing barque Paula as part of a German experiment to better understand global ocean currents.
The previous world record for the oldest message in a bottle was 108 years, four months and 18 days between jettison and discovery.
The bottle was found near Wedge Island, 180km north of Perth, by Tonya Illman when her son’s car become bogged in soft sand.
Researchers believe the bottle and message probably washed up there within a year of being jettisoned but lay buried in a layer of damp sand which helped preserve it, until a storm surge uncovered it more than a century later.
“It just looked like a lovely old bottle so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase,” says Illman.
“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.”
Her husband Kym then researched online to find the bottle appeared to be part of an official drift bottle experiment conducted by what was then known as the Deutsche Seewarte, or German Naval Observatory.
From 1864 until 1933, thousands of bottles were thrown into the world’s oceans from German ships, each containing a form on which the captain would write the date it was jettisoned, the exact coordinates at the time, the name of the ship, its home port and travel route.
The Illmans talk about their find in this video:
The family brought their find to the Western Australian Museum. Initial investigations established the bottle was a mid to late 19th century Dutch gin bottle.
“Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them, so we contacted colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany for help to find more information,” says Dr Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum.
“An archival search in Germany found Paula’s original Meteorological Journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message.”
Of the thousands of bottles thrown overboard during the 69-year-long experiment, only 662 message slips were returned to Hamburg and none of the bottles.
The Wedge Island find takes that total to 663, and is the only known example of the type of bottle used. The last bottle and note to be found was in 1934 in Denmark.
The Illmans have created a website documenting their find.
Here’s the German ship: