It has come to my attention that there are myriad bottles afloat out on the ocean, more than I ever imagined. The messages contained within may sometimes be sentimental, but they might also constitute scientific inquiry. In fact, the oldest found message in a bottle, dating back 98 years, was part of an oceanographic study to find out the “Direction of the Deep Currents of the North Sea”.
A Scottish skipper found it near the Shetland Islands this year, just nine miles from where it had been dropped by the Glasgow School of Navigation in 1914.
Messages in bottles go back to Greek times, and have always captured the imagination — so much so that Queen Elizabeth I had to squelch the romantic impulse to read what was inside by appointing an Uncorker of Ocean Bottles who would prevent amateurs from doing that job. She was afraid of information being relayed across the seas by spies.
A passenger on the doomed Lusitania in 1915 set this message adrift: “Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast. Some men near me are praying with a priest. The end is near. Maybe this note will—”
A scientific project in Canada today has sent out 6400 bottles, hoping to get back information on currents. They’ve gone all over the place. One circled Antarctica one and a half times before landing at Tasmania.
It seems science has come to dominate the message bottle gig. Next time I’m at the shore I’m going to jumpstart the poetry-in-a-bottle movement, inserting lines by Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden into wine bottles and sealing them firmly with sealing wax and cork before casting them out on the tides. You never think they’ll come back, isn’t that what’s kind of great about it?