The bottle was thrown overboard 132 years ago by German scientists as part of an investigation into ocean currents and shipping routes. Tonya Illman spotted the bottle in on a remote Western Australian beach as she waited for her son’s car to be dug out of soft sand.
Mysterious bottel discovery a family affair
She describes her discovery saying, “It just looked like a lovely old bottle so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase. My son’s girlfriend was the one who discovered the note when she went to tip the sand out.
The note was damp, rolled tightly and wrapped with string. We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”
The family immediately began researching the bottle and its contents and discovered it was part of an experiment conducted by the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg. The observatory was investigating ocean currents as a way to create more efficient trade routes.
Museum called in to verify the message
Powerful ocean currents can heavily impact large shipping ships by slowing them down or even pushing them along. The family then contacted the Maritime Museum of Western Australia for help in confirming the bottle identity and story.
The Museum researchers were able to confirm the bottle was a mid to late 19th-century Dutch gin bottle and that the paper matched other cheaply-made 19th-century paper samples. They could even confirm that the German ship, Paula which was printed on the paper did sail close to the coast around the same dates.
However, they needed more information to completely verify the unusual artifact. “Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them, so we contacted colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany for help to find more information,” said Dr. Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum.
“Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original Meteorological Journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message.”
69-year-old Science Experiment
The experiment consisted of throwing thousands of bottles from German ships into the ocean in the hope they would be found and the information about their final destination would get reported. The experiment was conducted for six-nine years between 1864 and 1933.
Though thousands of bottle were thrown overboard, just 662 have been reported to be found. The message inside the bottle contained: the date, coordinates of the ship at the time it dropped the bottle, ship's name, it’s home port and its sailing route.
The note inside the Illman's bottle reads: “This bottle was thrown overboard on 12th June 1886, in 32 degrees, 49 minutes latitude South and 105 degrees, 25 minutes longitude from Greenwich East. From: Barque ship Paula. Home (port): Elsfleth.”
The Illman family have donated the bottle to the Maritime Museum of Western Australia for two years. Museum staff believes that the bottle must have reached shore within a year of it being tossed overboard as the letter inside is incredibly well preserved.
It was likely to have been buried under sand and could have surfaced very recently.