Message in a bottle

Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways

Looking for a home.
 – “Message in a Bottle”, The Police

Whilst the world’s oldest known message in a bottle is only 132 years old, we know that notes have been placed in bottles since at least ancient Greece.  Christopher Columbus put messages in bottles, Jules Verne wrote about them and romances have formed because of them.

Queen Elizabeth I was so concerned that messages may contain details from British spies and fleets that she created an official position of “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”.  Anyone else opening the bottles could face the death penalty.

At various points in history, messages in bottles have been used to help us understand ocean dynamics which has been important to science, to the navy and to industry.  But much more interesting are the tales of distress, of being shipwrecked and ending up on a deserted island.

Often messages in bottles are sent as ships are sinking or as sailors realise the peril they are in after the boat has sunk.  In 1794, a crew were caught in a storm and shipwrecked on an island in the south pacific.  One of the crew, a Japanese seaman, carved a message in coconut wood and slipped it into a bottle.  It was found 150 years later and the sailors died on the island.

As well as SOS calls, we also send messages as part of our experience of emotional distress.  They are sent as part of the healing process, to say goodbye to loved ones, as a memorial or to take away hurts we no longer want.  We send these messages when we are hurting, when we need to feel like there is something out there which may change things, and the idea that there might be can bring us hope.

We send out our fears, our hopes, our dreams and in return we receive the joy of endless possibilities, of playful imaginings.  We dance with the unknown, we leave fate and ocean dynamics to determine the destination of our message

There is something about a message in a bottle that is akin to a diary.  It is a way of releasing secrets from inside us, making them real, writing them down and in doing so setting them free.  Beyond the confines of a diary however, the message in a bottle has the benefit of anonymity and of potentially being read, being seen and hence being validated by someone.  You can project onto this receiver, you can imagine there is someone in the world who would understand and know what to say in response.

And it is that potential receiver which drives some people to send bottles, in the hope of a connection, whether that be romantic or friendship.  They are invitations to penpals, to prospective friends, and invitations to more from hopeful lovers.  The messages can be a cry for connection, for community, for understanding.

Ryan Bort worded things beautifully when he described various reasons for sending messages:

final, poetic words of resignation left behind for (an) indifferent sea… lonely, lovelorn souls, searching for serendipity… [a search for] affirmation that comes from somewhere other than yourself… a romantic act that has such a delicious potential for magic… surrendering a part of yourself to something larger…every message in a bottle is a prayer”

There is a playfulness to some of the messages; a child reaching out into the idea of the big wide world, a bored teenager or a curious adult.

From a literary point of view, tales surrounding these messages tends towards the romantic and the poetic.  In a Japanese medieval epic, a poet is exiled and goes on to launch wooden planks, like messages in a bottle, which have his poems inscribed on.  These messages describe his plight and in doing so are both poetic and a distress call.  More recently, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens have written about messages in bottles.

Drift bottles and seabed drifters provide only a birth notice and an obituary with no biography.
– Dean F. Bumpus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst, 1973

It was estimated in between the mid-1900s and 2009, six million bottled messages were sent, 500,000 from oceanographers.  Whilst this is a romantic idea, a way of releasing our pain and of starting relationships, these bottles all add to the ocean litter.  At a time when we’re becoming so aware of the impact of plastic on the seas, we cannot continue, with good conscience, to send messages across the water.

And senders must also be aware that their messages may be found.  Whilst this seems like the aim of the game, some of the messages are written because we do not expect them to be read.  With the internet and the world’s connectedness, sending and receiving messages is not always a positive thing.  A woman in France sent a letter out containing her grief, this was then found by a writer in the UK who went on to write an entire book about her.  Another woman received media attention after finding a bottle and said that had she known that would happen, she’d have left it there.

My message in a bottle

What would you write if you were going to send a message in a bottle?

By fate and wind &
Tides, take the sorrows I’ve felt and the
Tears I have cried.
Let waves carry my words, let them turn and let them twist
Endlessly tossing in the dark abyss.


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