Before there were computers and GPS beacons to track the ocean’s whims, there were slips of paper and bottles.
Or more specifically, slips of paper in bottles.
The world’s oldest message in a bottle was recently discovered on a beach in Western Australia 132 years after it was tossed into the Indian Ocean as part of an experiment on ocean drift patterns, according to experts who call it “an exceedingly rare find.”
A report released by the Western Australia Museum details how the bottle was found and what its well-preserved message reveals about science and history.
The dark green glass bottle, which measured less than nine inches long and three inches wide, was found in January north of Perth by a woman named Tonya Illman, said a museum news release Tuesday that quotes Illman on the surprising discovery. She and a friend were walking along the dunes when she saw it near where her son’s car had become bogged in soft sand.
“It just looked like a lovely old bottle so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase,” Illman said. “My son’s girlfriend was the one who discovered the note when she went to tip the sand out. … We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”
The family not knowing if what they found was “historically significant or a very inventive hoax,” brought their discovery to the museum.
Experts took detailed measurements and began investigating. Because the paper was so well preserved, they believe the bottle probably washed onto shore within a year of being thrown and lay buried in sand for more than a century.
On the paper were two significant details: the date June 12, 1886, and the name of a ship, “Paula.” More digging, along with help from authorities in the Netherlands and Germany, revealed that the bottle was part of a German Naval Observatory program studying global ocean currents. An entry in the Paula’s Meteorological Journal written by the captain detailed the bottle being tossed overboard on that date. The handwriting also matched his.
The museum’s report lauded the discovery’s scientific significance and the importance of such data for global climate models. “Ocean current and drift patterns are still not completely understood,” it said.
The report linked the bottle to scientist George von Neumayer who implemented a drift bottle experiment from 1864 to 1933 that involved thousands of bottles being thrown overboard with messages inside. Only 662 were returned.
Before the latest discovery, the last one was found in January 1934.