By Emma Parker
As technology continues to advance throughout the 21st century, humankind finds less and less need for the rudimentary forms of communication. Since the first recorded handwritten letter in 500BC, to the use of papyrus scrolls in 3000BC, paper with lead pencils in the 14th century, and finally in the 19th century when the United States Postal Service was developed, different communities of people have found ways to communicate with one another. But as younger generations continue to be introduced to email, instant messaging, and texts, the written word has become significantly more digitized. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this shift in society’s approach to communication; in the same way that most civilizations no longer rely on pigeons or horseback to carry messages from town to town, we continue to find quicker and more reliable ways to connect with friends and family. In the 21st century, news travels more efficiently than ever before. Needless to say, a message in a bottle is certainly one of the less reliable forms of communication, as it’s almost impossible to ensure that the sender’s specified recipient actually receives the message, much less gets it in a timely manner. However, there is still something undeniably exhilarating about the discovery of something that should be almost impossible to find; of all the debris in every sea in the world, what are the odds the bottle you pick up contains a message from a complete stranger inside? The situation is so out of the ordinary that it’s instantly exciting; it’s like something out of a storybook come to life right before your eyes.
The idea of a message in a bottle often brings to mind imagery of stranded shipmates pleading for help with their only means possible, or maybe two disconnected lovers sending messages in hopes that the ocean will bring them back together. And while both of these cases have indeed occurred, the first known message in a bottle to ever be sent was not done for actual communicative purposes, but rather to test a scientific theory. In 310 B.C., the Greek philosopher Theophrastus decided to test the theory that the Atlantic Ocean flowed into the Mediterranean Sea by placing a message in a bottle into the water and seeing where the currents took it. Though this may seem a little impractical today, this method has actually been used several times since to test the exact same thing, and is even used today with more advanced materials. In 1846, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey tossed bottles overboard into the Gulf Stream off the East Coast of the United States to test the speed and direction of the ocean current. The bottles appeared over the course of the following few years, and where they ended up- alongside how quickly they were found- provided valuable knowledge to the Coast and Geodetic Survey at the time. Today, scientists use items called “drifters” that communicate with satellites while they drift across the ocean, allowing them to continuously track ocean currents during different seasons, different months, and even during storms and hurricanes without having to wait for a bottle to return safely to shore.
Aside from serving scientific purposes, messages in bottles have also served as means of communication for many. One of the more famous messages ever sent in a bottle was written hastily from a passenger on the Rms Titanic, moments before the ship fully sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The note, written on April 15, 1912, washed up on the shores of Dunkettle, Ireland the next summer. Jeremiah Burke, a nineteen year old from Glanmire, Ireland, had scribbled, “13/4/1912. From Titanic. Goodbye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork.” and sealed the message inside of a bottle of holy water his mother had given him before his journey. Similarly, three years after the Titanic had made its final voyage, a note was found from yet another sunken ship, the RMS Lusitania. The Lusitania was a British owned passenger ship that was struck and sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, one of the factors leading to U.S. involvement in the first World War. Though the ship sank in only eighteen minutes, one passenger had time to write, “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…” There’s much to speculate about this mystery passenger and his or her unfinished note, and it’s impossible to know if it was the only one sent from the sinking Lusitania. But the fact that it was found at all seems like yet another impossible feat made possible.
Decades before dating apps popped into existence, something so simple as a handwritten note washing up along the shore has the power to connect complete strangers from across oceans. Though it’s certainly not as simple, fast, or curated as dating apps, this unlikely method is exactly what brought together Swedish sailor Ake Viking and a young Sicilian girl named Paolina in the 1950s. In hopes that his message would find its way into the hands of a potential companion, the sailor threw a message in a bottle overboard that read simply, “To Someone Beautiful and Far Away,” and to, “Write to me, whoever you are.” Two years later, in 1958, a seventeen year old Paolina pulled the bottle from the sea, and responded to the sailor with a letter sent through the postal service that said, “I am not beautiful, but it seems miraculous that this little bottle should have traveled so far and long to reach me that I must send you an answer!” Though their story seems almost too good to be true, the two corresponded for months before finally meeting, and were later married. Ake and Paolina’s story shows exactly how impactful one small choice can be down the line; two total strangers from completely different countries were united because of one simple action on the sailor’s part- and Paolina’s choice to respond. Taking a chance on something with no foreseeable outcome and remaining hopeful throughout may seem juvenile, but there’s always a possibility that something remarkable can come from it.
As if Paolina’s tale wasn’t already hard enough to believe, a young girl in New York had an even more touching story. On a sunny day in the summer of 2000, ten year old Sidonie Fery sealed a note inside of an empty ginger ale bottle and tossed it into the ocean from the shore of Patchogue Long Island. Unlike Ake, Fery wasn’t expectant of a reply to her note. Yet twelve years later during a clean up of Hurricane Sandy’s wreckage, rescue workers recovered that same ginger ale bottle from the debris along Long Island’s shore. Inside was a note that said, “Be excellent to yourself, dude,” and a phone number to call if found. Fery, who had died just two years prior at age eighteen, could never have predicted that that same bottle would return to the same shores where it had begun its journey; while the Category 5 hurricane had brought despair to many, it brought a much needed comfort to Fery’s grieving mother, who was sure it was a sign from her daughter. The fact that something so insignificant as a decade old ginger ale bottle could hold such a significant message and bring so much peace to one person is inspiring. It puts into perspective how sometimes it really is the small things that can bring one another hope; perhaps Sidonie’s message to her mother was carried less by the ocean’s currents and carried more on the back of fate.
In Fery’s case, as well as many others, the release of a message in a bottle can serve as one’s message to the universe with no specific recipient in mind. The human desire to be remembered and have one’s existence preserved in some shape or form even after we have passed on is not an uncommon one. There are countless tales of messages in bottles serving as a person’s final message to the world, and while in most instances these bottles turn up in the ocean, that’s not the case for everyone. On September 9, 1944, within the gates of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Southern Poland, seven prisoners wrote their names, camp numbers, and hometowns onto a ripped piece of cement bag to be sealed inside of a bottle. When workers near the camp discovered the bottle in 2009, 65 years after the glass bottle was hidden inside a concrete wall, it was a jarring reminder of the horrors that had occurred in that spot as well as the lengths the prisoners had gone through just to preserve their sense of self.
For centuries, humans have steadily improved upon the ways that we connect with each other. While some methods may fall out of fashion as new ones emerge, what remains unchanged is the desire to communicate with others. Though a message in a bottle is a fairly dated method of communication, there’s an undeniable allure that surrounds the concept and encourages people of all ages to continue its use today. Finding these messages washed up on shore, entangled in fishing nets, or glinting in the sunlight among the ocean’s waves is a miraculous combination of being in the right place at the right time. That the currents somehow find a way to deliver these messages, however unimportant they may seem, sounds almost impossible. Yet it has happened countless times before and continues to happen now as more bottles from the past are discovered and shared. In moments where all hope seems lost, the story of a message in a bottle can always spark that flame back to life. There will always be unread messages drifting aimlessly across the ocean, on a journey that very well may never be completed; there will always be messages sunk to the bottom of the sea, completely unaware of the impact they might have had if delivered. Perhaps these notes and letters that have yet to wash ashore hold otherwise untold stories, or possibly nothing more than a “return to sender.” While it’s impossible to know the contents, it’s necessary to remain hopeful that one day your message will be delivered, even if it has to cross oceans to do so.
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