The Oldest Confirmed 'Message in a Bottle' Contained Some Fascinating Questions

A 2018 message in a bottle that was dated back to 1886, 132 years ago, was half-buried on a Western Australian beach.Its contents indicate that it spent more than 100 years swimming around before being found nearly 950 km (590 miles) away from the Indian Ocean ship where it was dropped off.Tonya Illman, a beachgoer, found the old gin bottles with a rolled up message on January 2018. It was located at 50 meters (164ft) from Wedge Island's high water mark.Even though the cork was missing, it still contained its contents.These contents were not, contrary to popular belief, a cry for help by a poor pariah stranded on a deserted island. They were part of a German experiment to chart the ocean currents that ran from 1864 until 1933.Many bottles were overboarded from German ships during this period. Each bottle contained a slip made of paper with the following information: the date, exact coordinates of where the bottle was thrown, the name and home port of the ship as well as the route it was traveling.The other side of the note contained a questionnaire. Anyone who found the bottle should write down the date and location, and then return the note to either the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg, or the closest German Consulate.Tonya's husband Kym Illman began investigating after the ink on the captain's pen started to fade. He was able to discern some of the writing, including the date (12 June 1886), coordinates, route (Cardiff-Makassar) as well as the name of her ship (a bark or barque named Paula).The message is unrolled. (Ross Anderson/WA Museum)This bottle was thrown outboardOn the 12th of June, 18 86In 32 49' Latitude SouthGreenwich East has 105 25' longitudesFrom: Bark Ship: Paula Port: Elsfleth Captain D [illegible]Her journey from Cardiff to MacassarThe bottle's finder will be asked to send the slip in the bottles to theGerman Naval Observatory Hamburgor to the nearest consulate to return the same agency's application after filling out the questionnaire.Information on the back.The message and the bottle were taken to the Western Australian Museum by the couple for verification. There, experts confirmed that the paper and the bottle were dated to the correct period and that Paula actually sailed the route in 1886.The most remarkable confirmation came after researchers from Germany were contacted by the WA Museum."Incredibly," a German archival search found Paula's original Meteorological Journal. It contained an entry from the captain for 12 June 1886, which recorded a drifting bottle being thrown overboard. Ross Anderson, a WA Museum maritime archaeology curator, stated in 2018 that the coordinates and date match exactly those on the bottle message."A handwriting analysis of the bottle message signed and sealed by Paula's Meteorological Journal shows that the handwriting style is identical in cursive, font, spacing and stroke emphasis."Comparation of original message slips returned for 1886 confirms the same type of message, wording, and print layout as the one found at Wedge Island in Jan."This discovery is the 663rd out of thousands of bottles that were ejected from German ships for the experiment. It is also the oldest discovery to date. The previous record-holder, who was 108 years old and 138 days respectively between dispatch and recovery was part of an identical experiment out of Britain.The Illmans generously donated their bottle to the Western Australian museum for display. You can also read the Museum's report online about it.An earlier version of this article appeared in 2018.