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Message in a Bottle
How to spoil a good story with facts

By John Happs

Update of an article that originally appeared in the Skeptic 26(1), 48-51, 2006. It shows how you can throw light on even the most baffling puzzle simply by contacting experts. There is nothing here that a Year 8 student couldn't do when faced by the same puzzle, so be inspired! Dr Happs, an education consultant, heads the WA Skeptics.

Bottled message raises doubts
Early in 2006 I read in the West Australian about a 10-year-old Perth boy who said he had found a message in a bottle that had drifted from Lancashire in England to Hillarys Boat Harbour near Perth in just six months. I happen to live around the corner from Hillarys Boat Harbour, so here was a local story of interest. But could a bottle travel such a long way in such a short time? It was the second well-publicised trip of its kind (more on the first one later), but I had my doubts.

My doubts were raised further when I received this email from the Australian Skeptics national office in NSW: "Just had a call from Dick Smith about the 'letter in a bottle' found in a Perth boat yard that was thrown into the ocean in England only a few months ago. It seems highly unlikely that a bottle could make that journey using only ocean currents in the time stated. Can you get more details from your local sources? Newspapers here have only sketchy info, but are playing it up."

If newspapers in the east were "playing it up", local sources were no better. I learnt that the West Australian story was based on a phone call from a Lancashire newspaper, but that was all. So I went online to check the many overseas newspapers that had carried the story.

My investigations begin
Each newspaper had reported that in July 2005 a kindergarten class in Heysham, Lancashire, had been discussing the topic "At the seaside". This gave four-year-old Alesha Johnson the idea of sending a message in a bottle. She drew a picture of herself on on a piece of paper, wrote underneath "Hello, if you get this message please write back", added the address of her school, and slipped it into a plastic Coke bottle. With the help of her Mum, she threw the bottle into Morecambe Bay, which is near the city of Lancaster on the north west coast of England.

Almost six months later a letter arrived at the Heysham Kindergarten. It had been written by Bob, a ten-year-old boy, who said he'd found the bottle at Hillarys Boat Harbour just north of Perth. Doreen Johnson, Manager of Heysham Kindergarten, confirmed that Alesha had thrown the bottle into the sea in July and that Bob had replied from Perth about six months later. She said the people of Heysham were keen to know more about Bob.

But Bob's surname could not be deciphered from his handwriting, nor had he included his address. Bob did say they were moving house and promised to write once they had settled in. He also said his Dad had shown him where Heysham is on a map, and had worked out that the bottle had travelled about 14,500 km since being thrown in the sea by Alesha. (Actually 14,500 km is the straight-line distance between England and Perth. If the bottle had followed major shipping routes it would have travelled about 20,000 km at more than 100 km a day, or about 18,000 km if via the Suez Canal. The point on the globe exactly opposite Heysham would be about 800 km south of New Zealand.)

What did the London Times say?
The Times of London reported: "Nobody knows exactly how the message got to Perth. The most likely route would have been into the Atlantic, past the west coast of Africa, and into the Southern Hemisphere. This marathon voyage would also have crossed the Indian Ocean." But before I investigate the puzzle further, here is some of the fascinating history of messages in bottles:

Messages in bottles have a fascinating history
For centuries, people have thrown bottles and other containers into the sea with messages they hoped would be picked up by others. Bottles have also been launched for other purposes. For example the Greek philosopher Theophrastus threw sealed containers into the Mediterranean to show how water flowed into it from the Atlantic Ocean. He did this in 310 BCE, and although there is no record of any reply as yet, somebody in Western Australia might still be the first. (I am not holding my breath.)

Messages have even been sealed in bottles and launched by spies wanting to report enemy numbers and positions. As a result Queen Elizabeth I made it a capital offence for anyone but the official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles to open bottles found at sea or along any coast.

Message in a bottle

Fake message in a glass bottle from Google Images. The deliberately humorous message says "MESSAGE! Council meeting CANCELLED". If glass bottles landed on a sandy beach they might survive, but not if thrown on to rocks during a storm.

For centuries, messages in bottles have been thrown from ships to record their progress and position. A typical message dated 16 February 1861, launched south of the Canary Islands, drifted across the Atlantic and was recently found on a tiny island in the Caribbean. It read: "HM Sloop Ringdove 25 November 1859 Lat 26.21 Long 18.7 by observation. This paper was thrown overboard at noon on the above day, we having just entered the North East trades. Force wind 3, along North Westerly swell. Barometer 30.43, thermometer 75, seawater 73. R.G.Cragie Commander." The temperatures were in Fahrenheit and are about 24 and 23 Celsius.

Christopher Columbus and life in the slow lane
Christopher Columbus recorded in his log that his ship Nina was struggling in a wild storm in the middle of the Atlantic. Afraid that he might not survive, Columbus composed a report of his situation, placed it inside a sealed cask and threw it overboard. His message asked the finder to notify the Spanish Queen. It was found more than 300 years later but not in Western Australia.

The windward beaches of the Turks and Caicos Islands east of Cuba are constantly receiving debris from the sea, including tree branches, coconuts, and messages inside bottles. Nils and Grethe Seim live on Grand Turk Island and have a collection of bottle-borne messages that have arrived from faraway places such as New York (travel time 6 years), Canary islands (14 months), Bermuda (2 months), Lisbon (16 months), and Miami (2 weeks). Always assuming (optimistically) that the bottles were found shortly after they landed.

Messages of distress
Bottles containing messages of distress are not uncommon. In 1714 a Japanese captain and his crew of 44 men were shipwrecked on a small island in the South Pacifie Ocean. A message was scratched on a piece of wood, sealed inside a bottle, and set adrift. It was found 150 years later on a Japanese beach.

In 1915 a passenger on board the torpedoed passenger liner Lusitania is said to have placed the following message inside a bottle: "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." At least that is one version of the story. Others vary as to what the message was, where the bottle was found, and who found it.

When over 800 Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany in 1939, they fully expected to be granted asylum in Cuba. But the Cuban President Frederico Bru refused them entry, and their ship the SS St Louis remained in Havana Harbour for 10 days. Reputedly hundreds of messages in bottles were thrown into the harbour, typically pleading "Please help us President Bru or we will be lost." Many of these bottles were later found along the east coast of the USA. Some were even found in Europe up to the 1960s. So far none have been found in Western Australia.

Bottles provide scientific information
We saw earlier how Theophrastus used bottles to show how water flowed into the Mediterranean. It was a trendy move, and bottles are now often used by scientists to get information about weather patterns and ocean currents. This information allows marine authorities to predict the path of oil spills, and to search more efficiently for missing boats, sailors and swimmers.

For example the Drift Bottle Project, started in 2000, launched many bottles from different ships in various locations in the Northern Hemisphere. Date and exact launch position are recorded inside each bottle. Only one bottle in twenty-five is returned; the rest sink or become lost on some remote coast. But this is still an inexpensive way to gather information about ocean currents. Some of the bottles have drifted from the Artic to the Caribbean at speeds of 5-10 km a day (this would get you from Perth to Sydney in 1-2 years).

Altogether many hundreds of "floaties" have been monitored over the years. They can move in complex patterns due to influences ranging from obvious ones such as the wind and the Earth's rotation, to less obvious ones such as ocean temperature, salinity, ocean floor topography, and land mass. The patterns can vary widely. Some are transient over small areas, others are more permanent over large areas. The map below shows their main features.

Ocean currents

Above: Warm surface currents (shown in red) are mainly driven by winds and the Earth's rotation. They flow from the tropics to temperate latitudes. Conversely, cold surface currents (shown in blue) flow from temperate and polar latitudes towards the equator. Note how the larger currents move clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. The most famous current is the Gulf Stream running from the Gulf of Mexico (hence its name) towards the North Atlantic. It can exceed 7 kph and on average would fill a cubic kilometre every ten seconds. But other currents can be much slower, for example the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is three times the size of the Gulf Stream but barely exceeds 1 kph. Note how the equator seems to act like a fence -- currents brush past it but seldom cross it. Map is abridged from

My investigations continue
It is tempting to look at the above ocean currents and simply pick those that might take a bottle from England to Western Australia. For instance, we could pick the currents moving south along the west coast of Europe and Africa, then south along the east coast of South America, then east past the southern tip of Africa straight into Hillarys Boat Harbouir. But what about the equator acting like a fence? Why Hillarys Boat Harbour rather than somewhere else on WA's 12,500-km coastline? Could this incredibly complicated journey have actually happened? To get a better idea, I emailed people with a professional knowledge of ocean circulation and the movement of drifting objects.

What experts in WA said
My first contact was Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi from the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia. He said: "A similar event was reported about 4-5 years ago when a bottle was thrown off a beach in Essex and ended up in Geraldton." (l'Il come back to that one in a moment.)

He continued: "It is theoretically possible. There are a few hurdles which the bottle has to go through -- it has to get to the ocean off say Spain, then somehow cross the equator in the Atlantic. After that it gets easier since the prevailing winds would bring it to WA. The time frame is OK provided the bottle was a plastic one and would therefore spend most of its time in the air." Nevertheless: "Twice in 4-5 years would be too much of a coincidence."

Professor Alexander Gavrilov, from Curtin University of Technology, didn't even consider the England-Perth bottle journey a possibility: "Was it a joke? Even if we didn't have continents and the water current is directed exactly from England to Hillarys (the distance would be roughly 15,000,000 metres), it would need the bottle to travel at about 1 metre per second (15,000,000 seconds is 5.6 months), which is about ten times faster than the available surface currents. The only real way for this bottle to make that journey is to follow the global ocean circulation, which would take tens of years and would also require the bottle to descend thousands of metres on the way from the northern seas to the Pacific Ocean."

What experts in the USA and UK said
My next contact was Dr Sean Chamberlin, oceanographer and Professor of Earth Sciences at Fullerton College in the USA. His initial comment was: "Although I am not familiar with that story in particular, it is indeed possible." But he quickly added: "But that doesn't mean a six-month trip from Morecambe Bay to Western Australia really happened."

So what was the response from oceanographers closer to the starting point? At the National Institute of Oceanography in Southampton, Penny Holliday said she had never heard of a bottle travelling so far and so quickly, while Peter Challinor was more emphatic: "I think it is extremely unlikely. It could not have travelled unaided." He expanded on this: "The world's currents would have prevented the bottle getting to Australia -- it probably got a lift in a ship." (A Boeing 747 was not considered at this stage.)

Several oceanographers from the USA suggested that Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer would be the best person to consult on this issue. He is a Seattle oceanographer and a recognised expert on marine debris and ocean drift. He readily acknowledged the complexity of ocean currents and the difficulty of predicting drift patterns: "If two bathtub toys were dumped from a freighter in the middle of the Pacifie in the same spot at the same moment, one may wash up in Hawaii while the other may end up frozen in an Arctic ice floe."

That travel time problem again
Interestingly, he appeared comfortable with the idea of a bottle actually making the journey from England to Western Australia: "Bottles have been known to drift from England to Perth." But he wasn't happy with the travel time: "The maximum speed I know of between England and Perth is about 25 nautical miles per day over a distance of some 16,000 sea miles [about 26,000 km]. So the fastest time is a couple of years. Six months makes me want to re-check the times of launch and recovery." Nevertheless he felt the story warranted further investigation: "This is a potentially valuable find as the number of bottles which have been reported along this route is only a handful."

But let's forget the travel time problem and look at whether bottles have actually drifted from England to Perth. Remember that even Dr Ebbesmeyer subscribed to such a belief: "Messages in bottles have been known to drift from England to Perth." But is there any real evidence that bottles have made such a complicated journey? Here we can turn to another well-publicised Aussie bottler:

Another Aussie bottler?
In 1999 the other well-publicised WA bottle find occurred in Geraldton. It involved Charles Harford-Cross, who claimed to have found an SOS message in a bottle launched by two boys in Essex on the east coast of England.

ABC TV's Media Watch (13 February 2006) followed this particular story and found that Harford-Cross had actually picked up the bottle while visiting England. Thinking it would be a great practical joke, he had brought the bottle back to WA and claimed to have found it in Geraldton. But he received more publicity than he bargained for, and ultimately (after protesting his innocence for several years) he confessed to the hoax.

Crunch time
Back at Hillarys Boat Harbour, we must now ask important questions: Which is the more likely -- that a bottle could travel faster than available currents over routes where such currents may often not exist, or that it landed somewhere in the UK and was picked up by a visitor heading back to Perth? Hoaxer Harford-Cross did it in 1999, so why not others? If you were replying to a message in a bottle, wouldn't you want to write legibly rather than illegibly? Will young Bob make himself known at a later date? Will Bob's Dad support the bottle story? Will there ever be real proof of a bottle drifting unaided from England to WA? If so, will huge cargo-carrying barges soon be plying the same route?

Call me skeptical but I suspect the answers are in favour of another hoax. If I'm wrong, it should be a message worth bottling.

That was in early 2006. By early 2009 there had been no word from Bob or his Dad or indeed any person who might confirm the find. So decide for yourself. Should we still live in (skeptical) hope?

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