One of the greatest memories from my childhood’s summer vacations are the long walk along the promenade with mum and dad taking my hands. The scent of the sea, the light breeze that caressed my face, the feeling of the sand beneath my feet and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks are indelible memories from probably the happiest time of my life and my greatest riches. The promenade was an excuse for me to be looking for looking for the most beautiful shells. I remember I could not resist. I liked digging into the sand to find as much shells as possible and then show them proudly to my friends, as if they were a trophy... You might think they were just shells though, for a 10 year-old girl, this is a real treasure! After all, as a child I was content to just a little, maybe one day I would have found a nice message in the bottle coming from another era or another planet ... This never happened to me, though.
What if you ever find a 132-year-old gin bottle with a real message inside of it while walking on the beach? What if you find out this to be the oldest message in a bottle of all time? What if this all ever happens to you by chance? Well, this came about to a lucky Australian couple who found a note, placed in a bottle and thrown overboard on June 12, 1886 near Wedge Island. The note was out of human hands for 131 years and 223 days!
“I picked it up thinking it might look nice on display in my home and when I got back to the car, I handed it to my son’s girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello, to mind while I helped my husband get my son’s car out of the soft sand.”
— Tonya Illman who picked up the bottle while going for a walk around sand dunes on a remote beach in West Australia
While taking a walk on a remote beach in Western Australia, a family from Perth discovered what is now believed to be the oldest message in a bottle: a message left in the ocean waves for a good 132 years. It’ a small sheet dated 12 June 1886 and entrusted to the sea by a German ship named Paula.
At first, the Illmans did not understand what this bottle was. They were just intrigued by its strange shape. Then they saw the message inside of it. The paper was really wet so they put it in the oven for five minutes to let it dry. "When we unrolled it ... I saw a printed message asking the reader to contact the German consulate," Mr. Illman said. They immediately realized it was not a fake and took it to experts at the Western Australian Museum. It was then possible to know a little more about this mysterious bottle and they found out that the message was part of an experiment on the oceanic and maritime routes made by German Naval Observatory at the end of 1800s.
"Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found ship Der Paula's original Meteorological Journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message found by the Illman family," said Dr. Ross Anderson of Western Australian Museum. The bottle was jettisoned in the south eastern Indian Ocean while the ship was travelling from Cardiff in Wales to Indonesia, and probably washed up on the Australian coast within 12 months, where it was buried under the sand, he wrote in his report.
The bottle had been thrown overboard from the German sailing ship Paula in 1886 as it crossed the Indian Ocean, 950km from the Australian coast, according to Ross Anderson, of Western Australian Museum (maritime archaeology dept.). At the time, German ships were conducting a 69-year experiment that involved throwing thousands of bottles into the sea to track ocean currents.
Each message was marked with the ship’s coordinates, the date, and the name of the ship, which Anderson used to verify the message. Details from the Illmans’ message matched Paula’s maritime records, and Anderson also compared handwriting samples with captain’s entries in Paula’s meteorological journal. “Incredibly, there was an entry for June 12, 1886, made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard,” Dr. Ross Anderson said. And his finding was later confirmed by experts at the German Naval Observatory.
”That was the most remarkable event in my life … 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.”
— Tonya Illman of finding the oldest message in a bottle of all times
“It certainly consumed me for the first week. 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.”
— Mr Kym Illman on the gin's bottle finding
What an impressive finding! And thanks to the Illman family who have loaned the find to the Western Australian Museum for the next two years, it can now also be shared with the whole world!