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Message in a Bottle

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I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle, yeah
— The Police

In 1979, lots of people were singing along to the Police single 'Message In A Bottle', the song which brought this ancient form of communication back to the public's attention. Though this may be a romantic notion, messages in bottles throughout history were much, much more than just cries for help.

Early Messages

Although a glass bottle may at first seem fragile, everyone has seen footage at some point where the bottle does not break when launching a ship. This gives some indication of just how tough a bottle can be. A bottle is, in fact, quite hardy and sea-worthy. A well-sealed glass bottle can survive extremes of weather on the seas that could mean curtains for a large ship. The bottle will simply bob and drift throughout the most extreme weather. If it doesn't smash upon the rocks, it can survive for a remarkably long time. Bottles that have been at sea for hundreds of years have been found washed up on beaches, much to the delight of the discoverer.

The earliest recorded sender of a message in a bottle was the Greek Theophrastus. He was a philosopher, Aristotle's favourite pupil, and is considered the father of botany. Theophrastus launched his messages in bottles around 310 BC, to himself, in order to prove that the Atlantic flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. The success of his experiment was quite likely the inspiration for Benjamin Franklin to replicate it and create his charts of sea currents (in particular the Gulf Stream) in the mid-1700s.

The value of the message in a bottle was understood only too well by Queen Elizabeth I, who received messages from her fleet in bottles during hostilities with the Spanish. The messages were so vital that she created the post of 'Uncorker of Bottles'. This post was hastily arranged after it was discovered that a bottle with vital information from a spy was inadvertently opened by a seaman at Dover. Following the creation of the post, it was deemed illegal for anyone else to open a bottle washed up on the beach. For those who dared, the penalty was death.

Vital Messages

Most people who consider the actual message in a bottle will picture a Robinson-Crusoe type figure, shipwrecked on a remote island and sending messages for help. Putting a message in a bottle is a most unreliable way to summon help, but shouldn't be ruled out altogether.

In 2005, a group of 88 migrants, consisting mostly of teenagers, were abandoned by people-smugglers off the coast of Costa Rica. When they were abandoned and their vessel stripped of radio and communication equipment, they resorted to the age-old message-in-a-bottle ploy. Their ingenuity paid off when their bottle was found by local fishermen and passed to the only inhabitants of a small island that is a World Heritage Site. The marine protection group who read the message, which simply said 'Please help us', immediately alerted their headquarters. The 88, which included women and children, were rescued and taken to the island, where they recovered from their ordeal and were treated for dehydration, exposure and seasickness.

Timing is Everything

Unfortunately, successful messages in a bottle are the exception, as they tend not to arrive in time to save the sender. More often than not the messages arrive months, years or even decades late.

One such case is that of the bottle found on a beach in Maine, USA in 1944. The message read 'Our ship is sinking. SOS didn't do any good. Think it's the end. Maybe this message will get to the US one day.' The message is thought to have come from the destroyer USS Beatty, which left Belfast following a six-day stopover to join a convoy to the Mediterranean. The ship was sunk on 6 November, 1943 by a German 'aerial torpedo' off the coast of Algeria near Cape Bougaroun. Twelve men were lost; the survivors safely returned home for 30 days' 'survivors leave'.

Another very late message was that of Chunosuke Matsuyama, who was stranded with 44 of his shipmates on a coral reef while treasure-hunting in the Pacific. Realising that without fresh water or food the group were doomed, the captain carved their story onto slivers of wood. He then sent their sorry tale off in a bottle, where it sailed the seas for 150 years before turning up on a Japanese coastline.

It appears that most messages in bottles carry the date they were sent. One such message was recorded in a bottle released in 1995. It was dropped into White Lake in North Carolina, USA by a ten-year-old boy as part of a school project. The bottle contained his name, age and the message 'If you find this put it on the news. The date is 4/16/95.' The message was found by one of his closest friends just days after the 11th anniversary of its launch. The reason this story made the news was that the sender had died in a road accident just two months before his message was found. His mother decided to have the message preserved and displayed.

Modern Messsages

Today, the term 'message in a bottle' has been used by many businesses to describe their service of message delivery, from the straightforward romantic message card to the message drifting through cyberspace.

For the romantics among us, the novel Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks was dramatised in a movie starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn in 1999. Not a blockbuster, perhaps, but worth a watch on a rainy Saturday evening.

By far the most travelled 'messages in bottles', however, have to be the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes. These probes, launched in the 1970s, are now the furthest man-made objects from Earth. Each has an attached golden disc, containing information from Earth, including ambient sounds and images and greetings from the then-American President Jimmy Carter and the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. The probes will perhaps someday wash up on a planet far from home and deliver our 'message in a bottle'.

Unnecessary Messages

For generations, people have thrown bottles with messages into the sea. These bottles have been known to contain wishes for miracles, attempts to find love or friendship, or just an experiment to see where the message ends up.

Some friendship messages were sent by a sailor from Long Island, who let five bottles loose on the sea containing his name and address. One of his bottles found its way to the United Kingdom, where it was found by a gentleman on a Bournemouth beach. Allegedly, the recipient sent the sender a scathing letter which included the classic reprimand 'You Americans don't seem to be happy unless you are mucking about somewhere.' That would surely be a deterrent for most who would consider trying the same thing.

Still, if you are considering littering the seas with plastic bottles containing frivolous messages, you should perhaps think again. Unless you are actually in trouble, it is an offence to litter and you may be liable to prosecution depending on local laws or by-laws. Remember, if your bottle includes your name and address, and were to fall into the wrong hands, you may be found and made to pay up. So think carefully before parting with your message in a bottle.

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