When a Scottish skipper pulled a message in a bottle from his nets near the Shetlands Islands, he didn't find a lovelorn note or marooned sailor's call for help.
Instead, when he opened the bottle, he found a message that read, "Please state where and when this card was found, and then put it in the nearest Post Office. You will be informed in reply where and when it was set adrift. Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea."
The message in a bottle found by Andrew Leaper – certified by Guinness World Records as the oldest ever recovered – belonged to a century-old science experiment. To study local ocean currents, Capt. C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation set bottle number 646B adrift, along with 1,889 others, on 10 June 1914.
"Drift bottles gave oceanographers at the start of the last century important information that allowed them to create pictures of the patterns of water circulation in the seas around Scotland," Marine Scotland Science's Bill Turrell explained in a statement.
Turrell's government agency still keeps and updates Captain Brown's log. According to Turrell, Leaper's discovery – plucked just 15 kilometres from where Brown released it – is the 315th bottle recovered from that experiment. Each one, Turrell explained, was "specially weighted to bob along the seabed," hopefully to be scooped up by a trawler or to eventually wash up on shore.
Oddly enough, the previous record – a message in a bottle dating to 1917 – was set in 2006 by Mark Anderson, a friend of Leaper's who was sailing the same ship, the Copious. "It was an amazing coincidence," Leaper said in a statement. "It's like winning the lottery twice."
George Parker Bidder who conducted research using the bottles
Of course, people have been putting messages in bottles for a lot longer than 98 years. Around 310 B.C., the Greek philosopher Theophrastus plopped sealed bottles in the sea to prove that the Mediterranean was formed by the inflowing Atlantic.
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England – thinking some bottles might contain secret messages sent home by British spies or fleets – appointed an "Uncorker of Ocean Bottles," making it a capital crime for anyone else to open one.
In the 20th century, doomed World War I soldiers used bottles to send last messages to loved ones. And in 1915, a passenger on the torpedoed Lusitania tossed a note that read, according to one report, "Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast. Some men near me are praying with a priest. The end is near. Maybe this note will—"