The envelope was addressed to a dead man.
“George Parker Bidder,” it read. “Care of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England.”
An e-mail was sent around to the MBA’s small staff soon after the letter arrived this spring. Almost everyone stopped what they were doing to peer at the curious object. Who could possibly be writing to the association’s esteemed former president, who had been dead more than 60 years?
Someone opened the envelope and pulled out its contents: a frayed old postcard. On one side, a series of questions in English, Dutch and German sought to figure out how the recipient had come across the card. The other side read “POSTCARD” and “One Shilling Reward” and included directions on how to mail the card back.
The postcard had come from a bottle dropped in the North Sea more than a century earlier, sometime between 1904 and 1906. It was one of just over 1,000 tossed into the steely waters between the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway by Bidder, a marine biologist attempting to examine the movement of fish and currents along the ocean floor.
Most of the other bottles, each specially designed by Bidder to trail along just above the murky sea bed and packed with a postcard just like the one sent in April, turned up within four years of the experiment, trawled up by fishermen or found by beach-goers walking along the shore. The MBA still has some of the postcards that were sent back to Bidder by the bottles’ discoverers. The 400 or so that remained unaccounted for were assumed broken or buried, lost to the quirks of the ocean currents and the ravages of time.
All except one. For reasons that perhaps not even Bidder could explain, one bottle remained adrift for at least 109 years, bobbing unhurriedly beneath the waves before finally washing up on the sandy shore of Amrum Island, just off the coast of the German-Danish border. It was picked up by Marianne Winkler, a retired postal worker on vacation with her husband Horst.
She examined the odd, aged object, which bore the Lewis Carroll-like instruction: “Break the bottle.” So she did.
Winkler then dutifully filled out the postcard inside, and sent it off to the MBA, not realizing she was mailing a message from the distant past.
But Guy Baker, a communications officer for the MBA, did realize it. He believes that the postcard is the world’s oldest message in a bottle, and has submitted the case to the Guinness Book of World Records for review. The current record holder, a 99-year-old missive from Captain C. Hunter Brown discovered off the coast of the Shetland Islands in 2013, was also a bit of a science experiment: Captain Brown was an oceanographer with the Glasgow School of Navigation tasked with charting deep ocean currents, according to National Geographic.
“That is how currents were studied in those days,” Baker told The Washington Post. “To find out how currents moved in the North Sea, Bidder would sail in a straight line releasing 100 or 200 bottles, and then he would wait to see where they turned up.”
The techniques that the MBA uses now actually aren’t too different. Researchers install tiny electronic tags on fish, then wait for the animal to be caught and the tag to be sent back to the MBA full of information on where it’s been. This helps the organization figure out how fish move through the ocean and whether they’re making use of protected areas.
“The modern analog of the message in the bottle is a small electronic tag,” Baker remarked. “It’s a nice reminder of how marine science has evolved.”
Unfortunately, the century-delayed arrival of Bidder’s old bottle doesn’t illuminate much about North Sea currents. All the MBA knows is where it was dropped and where it was found — what happened in between remains a mystery.
Still, the organization wanted to acknowledge Winkler’s contribution. So, as promised on the postcard, they sent her one silver shilling as a reward. The coin had to be purchased on eBay (Britain hasn’t minted any shillings since 1970) and Baker declined to say how much the MBA paid for it.
As a scientist, Baker relished the discovery of Bidder’s long-lost bottle. But as a spokesman who spends much of his time interacting with the press, he found the story puzzling.
“We put out the press release in May,” he said. “And it was fairly limited coverage to start with. We didn’t really know what to expect.”
Nearly four months later, after the German news media picked up on the story and interviewed the Winklers, the message in a bottle has found its way back into the headlines — and far more of them this time.
“It’s snowballed,” Baker said.
A lesson, perhaps, for spokespeople and for scientists: The vagaries of the international press can be as unpredictable as the currents of the North Sea. But a good story has a tendency to find its way.
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