Time is something humans are both at the mercy of and endlessly fascinated by. It’s a good reason why time capsules are a phenomenon found in many cultures around the world. For travelers, there’s no better example of this than an old-fashioned message in a bottle. One lucky Australian family may have just unknowingly found the world’s oldest known example.
The bottle was recovered by the Illmans, a family from Perth, on a remote beach in Western Australia. While vacationing near the beaches of Wedge Island, they found their car severely stuck in a sand dune. Several members of the family decided to go for a walk. When they noticed piles of trash strewn about the beach, they opted for an impromptu clean-up session.
Among the debris, they found a small amber bottle. Inside was a tightly rolled piece of paper wrapped in twine that wife Tonya initially mistook for a cigarette. They attempted to unroll it but found the paper too brittle and damp from the wet sand in the bottom of the bottle. Once home, they placed the scroll in the oven for a few minutes in an attempt to dry out the moisture just enough.
They immediately noticed a hand-scrawled note kindly requesting the reader contact the consulate in Germany with their finding. There was also the name of a ship (Paula) and a date: June 12, 1886. They first thought the story was too good to be true and brushed it off as a hoax. But, the family eventually took it to experts at the Western Australia Museum to be sure.
Museum curators consulted with colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany. A deep search of their archives confirmed the note indeed matched records of a ship by that very name. The bottle — also known as a “drift bottle” — was thrown overboard by Paula’s captain more than a century ago. The recorded coordinates of the bottle’s initial “launch” near the west coast of Australia matched those found in the note. It was part of a 69-year-long German meteorological study in the southeastern Indian Ocean.
Experts surmise the bottle likely washed ashore in Australia within a year. However, coastal sand dunes and ever-changing weather patterns would have quickly buried it. Although the bottle was missing its cork, the tight opening and liberal amount of sand found inside would have helped preserve its contents. The incredible, 132-year-old finding is now believed to be the world’s oldest intact message in a bottle.
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