As Candy and Jim Duke stroll along the Padre National Island Seashore, something unusual catches their gaze. At first glance, the item they see appears to be just a regular old bottle, but it’s what’s inside the container that draws the couple in. There seems to be a message hidden there – one from an unknown sender. And when the Dukes do unravel the piece of paper, they’re bowled over by what it reveals.
Candy and Jim are on the beach on most Saturdays, in fact. Typically, the Corpus Christi, Texas-based pair spend that day perusing the sand along the Padre Island National Seashore. And these expeditions reward the couple with natural treasures – such as sea glass, for instance. The bottles they pick up along the way are handy for decorating their backyard fence, too.
This time, however, Candy and Jim happened upon an unexpected gem. Then, after picking up the bottle and taking it home, the two decided to broadcast the moment they finally read the message – enabling their nearest and dearest to revel in their surprise.
Yes, Candy and Jim have often shared their coastal findings with their Facebook friends. On January 19, 2019, they felt, however, that they had something unique to present to their followers. So, the Dukes went on Facebook Live to reveal the object that had caught their eye that morning.
As soon as she started broadcasting on the social media site, Sandy explained her reason for doing so. She said, “We went to the beach today, and, as usual, we always find wonderful treasures… Today, we found a bottle that has a message in it, [and] so we decided to go on [Facebook] Live to open it.”
At that point, Candy and Jim knew very little about the bottle they had uncovered. Nonetheless, Candy showed the item to the camera and described it as best she could, saying, “The bottle’s just a standard, old, white bottle. It has a cork in the top.” Perhaps the most compelling visual detail, however, were the instructions visible from the outside.
As Candy read aloud, the container had an outward-facing message that read “Break bottle.” But the beachcombing couple didn’t want to do that, given their penchant for displaying what they uncovered. Candy explained, “We collect the bottles from the beach, and we have them going down Jim’s fence in the backyard.”
Then Candy and Jim examined the bottle and all of its outward-facing details before cracking it open. They also shared that there was a number inscribed on the receptacle: one that read 002338. This, along with the “break bottle” instructions, had understandably “sparked [the couple’s] curiosity,” according to Candy. She went on, “We just wanted to be able to share with all of you who follow us and all of our… treasures that we find.”
With that, Candy added, “I’m going to let Jim open this little treasure.” So, she handed the bottle over to her husband, who had brought a wine bottle opener. Using this tool made sense considering that the container had been corked and closed. But breaching the bottle wouldn’t be as straightforward as it may have seemed at first.
To begin with, Jim tried to pierce the cork by twisting the corkscrew. Ultimately, though, he felt as though the stopper might be “broken or something,” as it barely budged. Then he realized that it was made of “hard rubber” – a much different material to the traditional soft cork that plugs wine bottles.
So, Candy suggested to Jim, “Maybe you need to stand up and put pressure behind it.” But rising from his seat did little to help Jim get the wine bottle opener to work. To no avail, he twisted the tool all the way into the rubber stopper and started to press down on the wings – a move that would normally release the cork.
When the stopper remained in position, however, Jim came up with a second plan of attack. Explaining his new idea, he said that he would “twist [the wine opener] some more” to see if he could pull the cork out himself. This method proved somewhat successful, too, as pieces of the cork started to break off – although most stayed firmly in place.
At that point, Cindy stated the obvious, saying, “Well, this is harder than we thought.” Even so, she and Jim decided to “keep going with it,” and he re-twisted the corkscrew once again. As Jim worked to open the bottle, his wife joked, “Thank goodness there’s no wine in there. We’d all be crying at this point.”
Fortunately, the couple had yet another tool up their sleeve. Candy introduced what she described as “a handy, dandy antique ice pick,” with Jim ditching the opener to try to remove the remainder of the cork with the long, thin tool. And as her husband worked, Candy seemed to realize why the bottle contained such clear instructions.
The Texan mused, “Maybe that’s why they say break the bottle, because they sealed it really good.” Within less than half a minute, though, she and Jim would finally thwart the hard, rubber cork. Yes, as Jim manipulated the stopper with the ice pick, it started to move. And as victory finally seemed to be within his reach, he exclaimed, “By George, it’s coming!”
Of course, taking out the cork was only half the battle. Candy and Jim would also have to get the letter from the bottle – and doing so through the thin neck of the container would be tough. Jim explained, “They squeezed [the message] down when they put it in, and that put it all the way” into the bottle.
Still, Jim had a game plan: he would pull the papers close enough to “where [he could] get them with tweezers.” And as he worked, Candy began to speculate what the message could possibly have to say. She even grew excited as she imagined the possibilities for her and her husband.
And while Candy’s prediction was a little far-fetched, it wasn’t completely beyond the realms of possibility. She said, “I keep thinking [that] because [the bottle] has a number on it… Maybe we won some grand prize at some place. Maybe a cruise, I don’t know. I like to think crazy things, but you never know what you’re going to find.”
In response, Jim joked that a south Texas message in a bottle would probably only reward them with “a free taco somewhere.” But, of course, the only way to find out was to retrieve the roll of paper. And Candy wanted her turn at trying to remove the contents.
At first, Candy utilized the ice pick in an attempt to pull the documents closer to the neck of the bottle. Jim suggested she then try the tweezers to get the paper all the way out. But unfortunately for the pair, the tiny pincers ripped a piece off the message. And while watching his wife’s efforts, Jim quipped, “You can see this is not staged.”
Then, at nearly nine minutes into the video – and with still no letter in hand – Candy wondered if the message in the bottle would be “worth all of this.” But the beachcomber spoke too soon, as just seconds after she made that statement, the letter started to give way. She slowly slid it out of the neck of the bottle, finding the paper to be “really, really thick.”
Then, finally, Candy unfurled the message in the bottle and read it aloud to her Facebook Live audience. And at first glance, she noticed that the letter had a space for her to reply. She described, “It has a date, place found, your name and your address, and it has the number on it.”
Next, Candy got to the contents of the message. This read, “Important: this bottle is one of a series released at known locations in the Gulf of Mexico by scientists from the Galveston Botanical Laboratories of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries.” Naturally, though, a government agency wasn’t releasing bottles into the water just for fun.
The letter clarified the purpose of the experiment, saying, “These releases are part of a study to determine the role that water currents play in the movement of young shrimp from offshore spawning grounds to in-shore nursery grounds.” And as Galveston Botanical Laboratories wanted to know where the bottle had ended up, this explained the spots for the finder to fill in their personal information.
Then Candy chuckled when she read the end of the message, as it revealed the value of the treasure she had found on the beach. The letter concluded, “The person finding this bottle should complete the enclosed postcard and mail it at the first opportunity. A 50-cent reward will be sent for each completed return.”
So, while there may not have been a fortune in store for the Dukes, Candy nevertheless had exciting news to share after the broadcast had ended. She revealed in a comment made underneath the video that she had received “a very exciting call about the bottle.” This contact, as it turned out, had been from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The NOAA had taken the place of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries – the organization responsible for the message that Candy and Jim had found. And employees at the agency knew precisely when – and how many – bottles had once been sent out into the sea.
A February 2019 article on the NOAA website explained that Candy and Jim’s bottle had been one of 7,863 that had been deployed in the northwestern corner of the Gulf of Mexico. And, astonishingly, the containers had been released between February 1962 and December 1963 – meaning the Corpus Christi couple had found their example more than 50 years after the experiment had been initiated.
In the intervening years, the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries had become the NOAA – although the agency’s offices remained in Galveston. And in 2019 current acting lab director Matthew Johnson revealed to CNN why the 1960s team had wanted to understand shrimp spawning in the area.
Johnson said, “At the time, the shrimp fishery was the largest in the Gulf of Mexico, and this was the first attempt to start managing the species.” He explained, too, that modern fishermen still use what they know about water currents and shrimp nursing grounds to set their harvesting quotas.
And for many years, the message-in-a-bottle technique proved the best way for fishermen to track ocean currents. Decades after these containers are set to sea, then, they continue to wash up on shore. Candy and Jim aren’t the only ones to have discovered such an example, either.
Back in 2013, for example, a man found a scientific message in a bottle on the idyllic coast along Martha’s Vineyard. And the letter inside indicated that the item was a key part of a study by the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which had been using glass bottles to trace ocean currents since the mid-19th century.
The Coast and Geodetic Survey launched its last set of bottles in 1966, when Lyndon B. Johnson served as President and The Beatles’ John Lennon declared the group “more popular than Jesus.” Yet one container remained at sea for 47 years after that, ultimately washing up 300 miles away from its point of deployment on the Aleutian Islands – which dot the northern Pacific Ocean between Alaska and Russia.
Nowadays, experts use different methods for harvesting the same data. According to Johnson, the NOAA and other organizations today rely on drifter buoys. These also bob freely through the ocean, although they come equipped with satellite or radio equipment so that scientists can instantaneously check in from their onshore labs.
And researchers can oversee more than just the buoys’ natural drift through the ocean’s currents. These high-tech devices track everything from water salinity to wave height, and they can be customized at will depending on the information needed.
Yet despite the progress made in this area, glass bottles of a bygone scientific era still float around the ocean. And in Candy and Jim’s case, their container came with a letter and clear-cut instructions on what to do with it once discovered. So, the couple followed the directives included in the bottle that they carefully opened in January 2019.
Yes, more than 50 years after the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries experiment commenced, Candy and Jim returned the postcard that came with their message in a bottle. They filled out the required information – their names, their address and the place where they found the glass container – before sending the form back to NOAA via snail mail.
But were the couple the only ones to comply with these instructions? It appears not. You see, the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries recovered approximately 12 percent – or around 940 – of the containers within a month of them being launched back in the ’60s.
And, of course, the bottle came with a reward, according to the enclosed letter. This promise was honored by NOAA, although Candy and Jim wouldn’t receive a large sum of money in exchange. They wouldn’t be heading off on a cruise, either.
Instead, as Johnson later revealed, he offered the Dukes the original half-dollar prize, which would cost 55 cents to ship and $3 to print on a convenience check. But the couple may not have been too bothered with this meager sum. After all, Candy had labeled the one-of-a-kind find a “wonderful treasure” before she opened it.
The Dukes’ discovery may be eclipsed, though, by a bottle that an Australian woman picked up on a beach in 2018. And this wasn’t a mere piece of trash – far from it. In fact, the lucky individual in question can now boast of having a very significant achievement to her name.
Strolling along a beach with her friend, a woman does a good deed and picks up some trash strewn on the sand. In the process, she spies an attractive antique-looking bottle that she decides to keep. When she takes the receptacle home, though, she has no idea that this random find will ultimately see her listed in the Guinness Book of Records.
Married couple Tonya and Kym Illman are based in the Western Australian town of Lancelin as well as the nearby city of Perth. Both work at an audio-marketing company called Messages on Hold, which Kym founded. The parents of two are also keen photographers and have traveled all over the world with their cameras.
And on January 21, 2018, Kym, Tonya, their son and his girlfriend and family friends Grace and Joe Ricciardo were out for a drive. However, when they were crossing a beach near Wedge Island, close to Lancelin, their car got stuck in the sands. As a result, Tonya and Grace seized the opportunity to take a stroll.
Along the way, Tonya thought that she’d pick up some trash – at which point she saw a glass bottle. “I picked [the bottle] up, thinking it might look nice on display in my home,” she subsequently wrote on her husband’s blog. “And when I got back to the car, I handed it to my son’s girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello.”
The bottle had no cap, and Del Borrello spied what she presumed was a cigarette inside. When she turned the bottle over, however, a rolled-up piece of paper fell out. And as this item was tied up with string and too wet to open up without tearing, Del Borrello decided to keep it safe until the family were back at the Illmans’ home, where they could dry the note out in an oven.
Del Borrello subsequently revealed on Kym’s blog, “There was a lot of anticipation among the party as to what the ‘message in a bottle’ might say.” Then, once the paper was dry enough to be handled safely, it was unrolled and examined by the group. The first thing to become obvious was that the object was extremely old.
The opened scroll also measured about 8 inches by 6 inches, and the message it contained was in German, which Kym was able to partially translate. “We could not see the handwritten ink at that point but saw a printed message that asked the reader to contact the German consulate when they found the note,” Kym told the BBC in March 2018.
Kym was also able to decipher some other information in the note: that it had been flung off a boat for research purposes, for instance. The exact date of the note and coordinates of the boat were recorded in handwriting. The instructions further said that whoever found the message should fill in the precise time and location of its discovery before returning it to the research organization or a German embassy.
The following day, when the paper had dried out completely, the handwritten portion of the note was more legible. “I could easily make out the day and month, June 12, but the year was harder to decipher,” Kym wrote in his blog. The Illmans were also able to make out the written coordinate numbers: 32.49 south and 105.25 either east or west.
Kym was additionally able to work out that the name of the ship contained the letters “aula.” This led him to speculate that the ship’s name might have been “Paula.” A couple of days after finding the note, though, the Illmans sought help from the Western Australian Museum’s department of maritime archaeology.
The assistant curator at the department, Dr. Ross Anderson, subsequently began his own investigations. Anderson was able to report that the note had been placed in a Dutch gin bottle, which dated from the 19th century. As for the ship, he had discovered that there was a vessel named Paula in records from 1883.
The Paula was a type of sailing ship known as a barque and was built in Hammelwarden, Germany, during the 1870s. Her crew had taken part in research into ocean currents, which they did by dropping off messages in bottles. Over the course of almost 70 years, thousands of these notes were in fact distributed. But, so far, none of the bottles and just 662 of the papers had been reported found.
“Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original meteorological journal,” Anderson told the BBC. “And there was an entry for June 12, 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.” In addition, the handwriting in said book corresponded to that in the note.
Anderson stated in his report that the bottle had been tossed overboard while the ship was in the south-east of the Indian Ocean. At the time, Paula was travelling to Macassar in modern-day Indonesia from Cardiff, Wales. Anderson also estimated that the bottle had probably been adrift for less than a year before it had washed up on the beach, where it had lain covered in sand until it was discovered.
Paper and textile experts at the Western Australian Museum further established that the note was most likely written on inexpensive 19th-century paper. And upon assessing this and other evidence, the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany declared that the message in a bottle was genuine. After being jettisoned, the letter had awaited discovery for a total of 131 years and 223 days.
“To me it seems unbelievable that this bottle could have stayed in these dunes, without a cap on it, with that scroll intact for that many years,” Kym said in a March 2018 interview on Australian radio station 6PR. By way of explanation, Anderson’s report stated that the bottle’s thick glass and narrow mouth might have protected the note.
And on March 8, 2018, Guinness World Records named Tonya’s discovery the “oldest message in a bottle,” beating the previous record by over two decades. “This has been the most remarkable event in my life,” Tonya wrote on her husband’s blog. “To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief.”
Not everyone is a believer, however. For example, radio host Basil Zempilas aired comments by doubters on 6PR in March 2018. Zempilas said that some people are especially skeptical of the discovery given Kym’s marketing background. “Three different people have said, ‘I reckon Kim bought that in his travels overseas, and he brought it back and said, look what we’ve discovered,’” he reported.
Responding to the comments on Beaumont’s 6PR show, Kym said that he understood the skepticism. However, he added, “I’d like to suggest I’m a clever guy… but I can’t possibly pull the wool over two German national agencies, the WA Museum, the Ricciardos and my son’s girlfriend.”
The record-breaking message in a bottle is currently on display at the Western Australian Museum, where it will remain for two years. David Templeman, the state’s minister for culture and the arts, told the BBC, “It is truly an impressive find, and thanks to the wonderful international and interdisciplinary cooperation of science and research, it can now also be shared with the world.”