by Megan Specia
A message in a bottle was tossed off the side of a German ship on June 12, 1886, as it sailed through the Indian Ocean, the date and location penned carefully in script on the scroll inside.
In January, more than 131 years after the bottle was set adrift, an Australian woman walking on the beach noticed the thick, discolored glass of an old bottle poking through the sand.
The bottle — and the message — had been found.
It is believed to be the oldest known message in a bottle ever recovered.
The woman, Tonya Illman, discovered the tokens from another era while walking on a beach near Wedge Island, in Western Australia.
“I got out to walk around and I noticed a lot of rubbish, and my immediate thought was to pick some up, and take it home and throw it out,” Illman told the Australian news outlet ABC. “I bent down and picked up that bottle that was at my feet. And that was it, as simple as that.”
The bottle did not have a cork stopper; it appeared to have been uncovered by a recent storm and was sticking out of the sand halfway, Illman said during a news briefing this week. Illman didn’t initially notice the note inside, and thought the bottle would make a nice decoration for her home, so she took it back to her car.
Her son’s girlfriend soon discovered the scroll, damp and held in place with a piece of twine.
It was too wet to unfurl, so Illman placed it in her oven to dry.
Once the scroll was opened, she saw German text and faded handwriting on the paper. While the text was hard to see, the family eventually made out enough of the writing to realize the significance of the find.
The Illmans took their discovery to the Western Australian Museum, which verified that the bottle and the note date back to the 19th century. The museum contacted experts in the Netherlands and Germany for more information, and confirmed that the bottle had been dropped from a German vessel called the Paula.
A search of German archives uncovered the Paula’s original Meteorological Journal, and in a captain’s entry from June 12, 1886, researchers discovered a reference to the bottle, thrown overboard as the ship was sailing from Cardiff, Wales, to Makassar, Indonesia. The date and the coordinates matched.
“A handwriting comparison of the bottle message signed by the captain and Paula’s Meteorological Journal shows the handwriting is identical in terms of cursive style, slant, font, spacing, stroke emphasis, capitalization and numbering style,” Ross Anderson, the assistant curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australia Museum, said in a statement.
When the bottle was set adrift, Grover Cleveland was the president of the United States, Queen Victoria was shortly to celebrate 50 years on the throne of England, and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.
The bottle had been tossed into the Indian Ocean from the shipas part of a decadeslong experiment by the German Naval Observatory to understand ocean currents.
Thousands of bottles were thrown into the ocean around the world from German ships between the 1860s and the 1930s, each with a form bearing the date and location where it had been tossed into the sea, the name of the ship, its home port and the travel route, the Western Australian Museum said.
The back of each note, including the one found by Illman, politely asked whoever found the bottle to write when and where it had been found and to return it to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or to the nearest German Consulate.
The last time one of these bottles was found, and the note sent back to Germany, was in 1934.
The family is waiting for Guinness World Records to verify the discovery of the message in a bottle as the oldest in the world, a record currently held by a bottle that was discovered after 108 years.
The newly found bottle and its message will be on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle for the next two years, on loan from the Illman family.
Illman’s husband, Kym Illman, detailed their journey to verify the note on a family website, and said they were eager to share the note with the public.
“It certainly consumed me for the first week; it was like solving a giant puzzle,” Kym Illman said in a statement. “Now that it’s been confirmed as legitimate, I can’t wait to share our excitement with others.”