Bottled messages reveal ocean currents

By AAP and AG staff 26 July 2011
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Casting a message in a bottle adrift is an age-old communication method, but it can also reveal ocean currents.

FOR MOST OF US, finding a message in a bottle is a once-in-a-lifetime event at best. But Tony Amos has found more than 100. Two were tossed from the same ship, more than one year apart. Tony found them both on the shores of Mustang Island State Park in Texas.

Bottles tossed overboard with notions of hope, longing or romance also provide potential for scientific discovery. In the information age, more of these missives include a return email address, so Tony, a research fellow at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, can find out where they originated. In doing so, he can attempt to unlock mysteries of the oceans.

“This is quite extraordinary,” Tony said of the two bottles set adrift from the same vessel. “This shows the connectivity of the oceans.”

The first was sent from the Sea Cloud, a sailing yacht, in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, about 1287km west of the Cape Verde Islands. Launched on November 7, 1998, the bottle travelled for 438 days and about 5632km. It had a simple message in English, Spanish and French, saying when and where it originated.

Later, while giving a presentation in Amsterdam, Tony made a side trip to Wenningstedt, Germany, to return the bottle cork to its owner.

Following what had become tradition on the yacht, the second bottle was launched from the Sea Cloud, at 11.11am on 11 November 1999. It travelled for 530 days and 6436km to arrive in Port Aransas.

Chance encounters

Tony, whose work has included deploying sensitive, high-tech equipment in the ocean to measure all kinds of data, acknowledges that bottles are a crude way to measure currents.

But besides helping him study ocean pathways, the bottles have led Tony to chance encounters with far-off strangers who share their longings, fears and hopes. One came from a girl worried about her sibling headed off to war. Another came from a woman mourning her lost husband. Other messages are less profound.

“I like kiwis,” a child scrawled on a napkin. “Do you?”

Patient message

Something about the centuries-old act of casting away a message, on a slim hope that it will be recovered, draws minds eager to learn more about the oceans. David Bartling retired in 1997 after 30 years of teaching science. In his oceanography classes, students dropped about 25,000 such bottles. Each had a number for tracking and a simple request to answer a short survey about when and where it was found.

David  said up to 20 per cent were recovered. One survey was returned 10 years after the bottle was launched. “It probably sat on the beach forever,” he said.

The furthest-travelling bottle, to David ‘s knowledge, ended up in Ireland.

Some of his students went on to become scientists, even marine science teachers. Tony, in his own studies, has travelled nearly 25,744km up and down Mustang Island. The 74-year-old’s wispy white hair seems to have taken on the sandy tinge of the beach. He has developed a knack for spotting message-containing bottles from afar. And don’t discount the plastic ones, he advised.

“In a way, our sensibilities have been degraded by the lapse in tradition and the lack of ceremony in our lives,” he said.

But Tony sent his message – his only message in a bottle – the proper way: bottle and cork. He and some colleagues hatched the plan after drinking the bottle’s contents while on an Argentine research vessel off the coast of Antarctica in 1978.

Tony can’t remember what he wrote. The bottle, as far has he knows, has never been found.