A Message From the Past (And the Sea)

Sure, finding a message in a bottle is a rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Even better: finding the oldest ever message in a bottle.

Wedge Island

In January 2018, a Naceline, Australia, family named the Illmans (and some friends) took off for a beach trip in the western part of the country. They drove on the beach near Wedge Island, but had to stop when their car got wedged in sand. Not quite ready to dig themselves out, Tonya Illman and friend Grace Ricciardo went for a walk on the beach, and, being good citizens, pick up some trash on the way. That’s when Illman found a very old bottle with raised lettering. A little fancier than the average piece of beach trash, Illman thought she could clean it up and use it as a knick-knack.

It wasn’t a cigarette

She got back to the car and gave it to her son’s girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello, for safe keeping while she helped her husband get their car out of the sand. Del Borrello curiously inspected the bottle and found what she thought was a cigarette inside. She shook the bottle and pried out the object, only to realize it wasn’t a cigarette—it was a tightly rolled piece of paper, wrapped in twine. In other words, they’d found the best thing you can ever find at the beach, and the thing you never find at the beach unless you’re a character in a book or a movie: a real-life message in a bottle.

Dry (but not fried)

When the Illmans got home, they took the moist message and place it in their oven on low heat, so as to dry it out. When it was dry (but not fried), they unraveled the scroll. It was about six by eight inches long, and while some of the ink had faded, Tonya Illman could make out the date on the message: 18…something.

Could it really be from the 1800s? At first, the family thought it was a joke—a real message in a bottle, but with a fake date to “seem” old. To make sure, they took it to the Western Australian Museum and talked to Ross Anderson, the museum’s assistant curator of maritime archeology. It didn’t take him long to provide more details about the note, and also to authenticate it.

June 12, 1886

First of all, the date was accurate: Anderson examined the note and found its full date: June 12, 1886. It was more than 131 years old. Anderson also analyzed historical data and found that it had been thrown overboard from a German sailing ship called the Paula as it crossed the Indian Ocean during a journey from Wales to Indonesia. Anderson determined that this message in a bottle was part of a 69-year-long German experiment that involved throwing thousands of bottles into the ocean to research currents. From its drop-off point, the note made its way 600 miles, where within a year it washed ashore in Australia and has been buried in the sand ever since.

Oldest message in a bottle ever found

It’s one of 663 bottles with messages recovered from the German experiment. More notably, it’s the oldest message in a bottle ever found.