Monday, November 26, 2012

Message in a Bottle: What We Cannot Know

Note the red flame of warm current and the large eddies where the
Gulf Stream stretches into the colder (yellow and green) North Atlantic.
Thanks to our good friends on S/V Celebration, our message bottle is floating dozens of miles off the east coast of the US. It will float along at one to three knots as the Gulf Stream carries it north and east until the Gulf Stream sputters and splits off the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland unless diverted by one of the stream's huge eddies. We do not know that it will follow that course, but the odds are good. Beyond the end of the Gulf Stream, we cannot guess what current or currents, what forces of wind or wave might tow it along. What our bottle will float among, pass by, be seen or sensed by, bumped or tasted by, we do not know. Who or what might see it without knowing its significance, like a face in a crowd, we cannot know. It is a bottle, flotsam. It is a wine bottle of which the planet empties and discards tens of thousands every day, meaningless except to those who drank from them.

The full circulation of Gulf Stream from Florida towards Europe.
Once the current reaches the British Isles, it assumes other names.
A message in a bottle is a mysterious delight for those who send them into the ocean wilds. No one else even considers the possible existence of any single bottle. The two classes of people curious about the bottle are the ones who cast them adrift and the ones who find them. And then, the finders only care if they choose to pick up the bottle instead of passing it as common beach garbage. A conscientious beach walker may retrieve the bottle only to toss it into a trash bin. The bottle could land on beaches as disconnected as Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia, the west coasts of Europe or Africa. It could even float all the way back to the Caribbean.

It could be years or even decades before our bottle is found. It might never be. It might be smashed against a rocky shore, trapped in a crevice, crashed by the hull of a ship, snagged and discarded by a fishing trawler. It might be buried under beach sand before someone spies it. Of course, someone might find it and never let us know.

In 1914, Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation released 1,889 bottles to test the Scottish currents. His experiment was an unusual use of bottles. He wanted to know where the bottom currents flowed. He wanted his bottles to "float" along the bottom. Of all the bottles released, 315 have been recovered and reported, the last in June of this year, 98 years since its release. It was recovered only nine miles from its original drop point, but we can imagine how far it may have circulated undersea over the course of nearly a century, bouncing along the bottom, witnessing inter alia the shipping and submarine activity of two world wars.

Capt Brown's bottle # 646B found in June 2012.

Scottish currents charted by Capt Brown's bottles.
In the end, there will be far more that we do not know about the voyage of our bottle than we can know. Two facts will be the likely total of our knowledge, where it began (known) and where the voyage ends.  We already have a good tale about the journey's start; any further tales surrounding the journey (e.g., who finds it and under what conditions) will provide icing on the proverbial cake. Captain Brown's bottles included a prepaid postcard and offered six pence to the finder. Perhaps we should have included a monetary reward for replying to our bottle? I believe that far too cynical for what is an enduringly romantic notion, that someone would cast a message in a bottle into one of our planet's great oceans just to see where it might land. A celebration of serendipity.

Royal terns at sunset.
NOTE:  For anyone cruising the remote Bahamas or passing through on the way to Puerto Rico and the Carib beyond, note that the Turks and Caicos National Museum (who'd have known they have one?) has a Message in  a Bottle collection on exhibit with messages found on its beaches.

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