Twenty thousand lieues in the ocean

Bottle with a message

Scientific experiment or romantic gamble? A bottle containing a stamped addressed postcard thrown into the North Sea has been found intact 110 years later on a beach in the Frisian Islands. The story of a voyage through time.


A bottle in the sea must be one of the oldest forms of social network. A message sent out at random, in the vain hope of one day reaching someone. A bit like in the well-known, enigmatic Police song, Message in a Bottle (1979). Is it an SOS? Is someone trying to start a conversation? What is certain is that these messages sent out over the oceans have inspired myths, novels and poems. But these inventive messengers often had other things on their minds.


Exploring the ocean depths


In the 19th century, underwater sonar didn't exist. Commercial and maritime routes from one continent to another required expert knowledge of ocean currents to ensure plain sailing. On 30 November 1906, the British scientist and marine biologist George Parker Bidder (1863-1953) attempted an experiment: throwing bottles into the North Sea to see where they would end up. His research led him to throw some 1,020 bottles into the sea between 1904 and 1906.


As time went by, he noticed that bottles that sunk towards the seabed ended up on British beaches, while the bottles that floated went towards the continent. The biologist deduced that the deep currents of the North Sea flow from east to west, while the surface currents flow from west to east. Current underwater installations (cables, military routes, etc.) owe a lot to George Parker Bidder's glass bottles and his observations.


A long voyage at sea


A stamped addressed postcard urging the finder to send it to the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth was slipped into each bottle. That is how, after more than a year of investigating and cross-checking, the MBA was able to announce that George Parker Bidder's bottle, found in April 2015 on a beach in the German Frisian Islands, is the oldest message in a bottle ever to be found. The bottle had been on a 108-year, 138-day journey that beats the Guinness World Record of 99 years and 43 days.


Pot luck

Some of these glass bottles have survived several decades in the waves. Crossings, storms and voyages that will remain a mystery forever. But sometimes the currents bring less reassuring news. At the end of November 2016, on a beach in Pas-de-Calais, northern France, a walker discovered a little pot of yoghurt, still closed and completely intact. Its sell by date: 1976. Forty years on the high seas! A voyage that gets you thinking when you consider that it takes over 600 years for simple plastic packaging to completely biodegrade.

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