The Oldest Message in a Bottle,
Rubber Ducks & Grim Footwear
Those searching for romance, and adventure, in all the wrong places, had another reality-check moment this week: an old bottle with a note inside, found off the coast of Scotland, was not sent by some unkept shipwreck of the past, but was part of a research project.
Even as it turned out to be 98 years old, a Guinness record, the finding was far from igniting the ardor of lonely hearts everywhere. Alas, romance has been all but absent from the latest returns from the sea, as debris from last year’s tsunami have been showing.
A soccer ball, a couple of baby grands, a Harley-Davidson, even a massive fishing dock have already washed ashore in U.S. coasts, reminders of the tragedy in Japan. Everything but a nice, heart-warming message of despair from someone stranded in a faraway island.
But no one should be so picky about what the sea may bring you, even if romantic pleas for ‘rescue me, please,’ are hard to come by these days. Most of everything would be better than the wave of multiple single-pair sneakers, each with a foot inside, that began to appear a few years back in northwest shores.
The grim discoveries, which seem to, thankfully, have stopped at least for a while, were traced back to a spat of suicides and other bad news we wouldn’t want to spoil your weekend rehashing the story to tell you all about it. Suffice to say that, in some extreme cases, your footwear may be all that’s left of you.
A POSTCARD & SIX PENCE
The idea behind releasing the bottle in June of 1914, by Glasgow School of Navigation Captain C.H. Brown, was to let it ‘sink to help map the currents of the sea around Scotland.’ Other 1,890 bottles were also released, for the prosaic, and definitely non-romantic project, but so far only 315 of them have been found.
Even the postcard inside was all about business: it promised a reward of six pence to the finder. That would be Andrew Leaper, a skipper who now figures on the Guinness Book, having beaten his friend Mark Anderson’s previous 2006 record find, which coincidentally happened on board the same vessel.
In fact, the tradition of using drift bottles for scientific research predates that of using them to send out notes, either begging to be rescued, or the most popular kind: love letters. But from the first one ever sent, which Wikipedia dates to 310 BC, to contemporary rarities, the habit probably had its heyday during the Discovery era.
The imminence of a shipwrecking is, of course, a sobering event in anyone’s life, and perhaps the best occasion to make your peace and declare your undying love for your loved ones. For those who find these drifting telegrams (if you don’t know what they were, never mind it), it may have a similar effect as opening a time capsule, or finally receiving an alien message from outer space.
THE REMNANTS OF A TSUNAMI
The earthquake and following monster wave that crashed the coast of Japan, slightly over a year ago, is among the greatest natural disasters ever recorded. Once again, nature’s unleashed power and fury threatened to turn back the clock on civilization, and even the resilient Japanese people may have doubted whether their country would ever recover.
It did, thank goodness, even that it’s not completely out of the woods yet. Along tales of lives lost and redemption, of destroyed property and solidarity, debris and personal belongings have been traveling across the ocean and washing ashore in the U.S.
Oyster farm buoys? Found it. A whole shipping container holding the Harley with Japanese license plates? Already sent back. An 165-ton, 66-foot long fishing dock? That we’re free to keep it. These and an assortment of other items have been catalogued and someday may comprise a book on the tsunami. But, brace yourself, some say we’ve been spared from the worse.
During a recent symposium about the disaster, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer said that we should expect to find ‘athletic shoes with human remains,’ too, and if that happens to you, heaven forbid, you should call 911. For many families, that won’t be gore, but hope to identify those lost at sea during the storm.
We’re not saying you should look forward to be on the receiving end of such picnic-at-the-beach-ending event. But it may make it for your good deed of the day. Or something. Better yet, stay away from the beach, if you’re not particularly enthralled by the thought. It was just that, anyway, a thought.
FLOATING DUCKS & SNEAKERS
Moving on. When it comes to things that float and bob on waves, or wash in sandy beaches around the world, not all is about doom and gloom, and body parts and police forensic work. In fact, there are many categories: there’s the marine monster category, the plastic pollution debris, the broken furniture division.
Footwear, mind you, remains one of the most common finds. Just last month, 4,696 flip-flops (yeah, someone counted them) were collected at a Queensland beach, during a five-day clean up effort by marine conservation Tangaroa Blue. Bleach bottles, oil containers, fishing crates, ropes, and ‘even plastic resin pellets,’ according to the group, were also picked up.
In the early 1990s, some 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, blue turtles, and green frogs, broke free from a cargo ship and spent the next 25 years traveling around the world, tracked by the same Ebbesmeyer. Most of it was finally retrieved off the U.K. coast, but not before getting trapped for years in the Arctic.
Another famous incident was the Summer of the Can. In the late 1980s, a container with thousands of cans, stuffed with a pungent green plant, began to wash ashore in the beaches of Brazil. It was the secret cargo of a ship Solano Star which had to get rid of the five-liter cans with marijuana, in order to stay afloat.
The event was quickly inserted into the Brazilian popular culture of the time, enthusiastically celebrated by aficionados, and it’s still remembered with nostalgia. Since no one dared to claim ownership, local law enforcement had a hard time preventing people from retrieving the cans and smoking their contents. A splendid time was had by all, we’re told.
To expect that something will be spontaneously returned by the sea is, of course, no more than an old fisherman’s tale. And since we hardly drink stuff from glass bottles nowadays, let alone all the GPS paraphernalia and our obsession to be hooked up to phones 24/7, chances of you coming across a message from a shipwreck, or you sending one out yourself, are pretty slim.
As for the incurable romantics out there, we’re sure you will find in your hopeful hearts other reasons for redemption, sitting at the edge of the bay. Whether it’ll be the fulfillment of all your dreams, or the proverbial monster lurking in the lake, ready to pounce on you, just keep your head above the water, will you?
* Salish Sea Feet