In 1886, sailors on a German ship tossed a bottle into the Indian Ocean as a way of measuring the currents. Inside was a note politely requesting that the finder record details of where and when the bottle was discovered. But nobody came across the bottle until January of this year, when, as Naaman Zhou reports for the Guardian, a woman stumbled upon the relic on a beach in Western Australia.
Tonya Illman was exploring the dunes near Wedge Island, located around 110 miles north of Perth, when she saw an interesting-looking bottle lying in the sand. She picked it up, thinking it would make a nice display piece for her home. Illman handed the bottle to her son’s girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello, who spotted a tightly rolled note inside.
The letter was too damp to open, so Illman later popped it in her oven to dry it out. When she and her family unfurled the note, they could see it was printed on both sides in German. The family also noticed handwritten lettering, much of it badly faded.
“I could easily make out the day and month—June 12th —but the year was harder to decipher,” Kym Illman, Tonya’s husband, explains on a website he created to detail the discovery. Kym could also see the word “aula,” leading him to suspect that the bottle may have been thrown from a ship christened Paula.
The Illmans contacted Ross Anderson, a curator at the Western Australia Maritime Museum, who confirmed that he had found an entry for a 19th-century ship named Paula in the Lloyd’s Register, which has records of merchant ships all the way back to 1764. The museum also reached out to experts in Germany, who were able to track down Paula’s meteorological logbooks. In an entry dated June 12, 1886, a “Captain O. Diekmann” noted that a bottle had been thrown overboard. He listed the co-ordinates of the ship’s location at the time (around 590 miles off the coast of Australia), which corresponded to co-ordinates specified in the note. The handwriting in the logbook also matched the neat script on the message.
The note’s authenticity has been confirmed by the German Naval Observatory, according to Zhou.
“It was like solving a giant puzzle and now that it’s been confirmed as legitimate, I can’t wait to share our excitement with others,” Kym Illman said on his website.
Paula was making its way across the Indian Ocean when the bottle was thrown into the waters. During this period, German sailors tossed thousands of bottles into the ocean as part of an experiment that sought to track the waters’ currents. To date, 662 messages from the same experiment have been found, according to Zhou.
At 131 years old, the newly discovered relic may be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. The previous record holder was thrown into the ocean in approximately 1906 by a researcher for the UK Marine Biological Association. It was around 108 years old when it was found in 2015.
As Gizmodo’s Matt Novak notes, it is very rare to discover a centuries-old messages in bottles. If the bottle’s seal wears away, the note inside will in all likelihood be destroyed. The Illmans say that the bottle they found did not have a cap, which may suggest that the historic treasure washed ashore before the cap came off. A recent cyclone north of the area where the bottle was found may have disturbed the sands covering the relic, leading to its discovery.
“This has been the most remarkable event in my life,” Tonya Illman said in a quote on the family’s website. “To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition despite the elements beggars belief. I’m still shaking.”