A postcard placed in a bottle and thrown into the North Sea more than a century ago has been found and returned to the scientific institution responsible for its distribution. Rather than a love letter or an SOS to the world, it is part of one of the longest running scientific experiments in the world.
From 1904-1906 George Parker Bidder of the Marine Biological Association of the U.K. (MBA) placed 1020 postcards addressed to the institution in bottles and had them released into the North Sea. The cards offered a reward of a shilling to anyone who found one and posted it back with information.
Marianne Winkler found the bottle in April on a beach on Amrum, an island off Germany's North Sea coast. Winkler told local website Amrun News, “It’s always a joy finding a message-in-a-bottle on the beach. Where does it come from, who wrote it and how long has it been travelling with the wind, waves and currents?”
In this case the card was undated, so while Winkler could tell it was old, she had no idea she had no idea her bottle had been at sea so long that it is likely to break the current current record of 99 years (the MBA are waiting for this to be confirmed).
As instructed by the note inside, Winkler and her husband smashed the bottle and mailed the card back to the MBA. Its communications director Guy Baker told the Telegraph “It was quite a stir when we opened that envelope.”
Although the MBA announced the bottle’s discovery in May, the story stayed submerged for a while, much like the bottle itself. Suddenly the finding was noticed last week, leading to flurry of media attention.
One of Bidder's bottles, similar to the one the Winklers found. Credit: MBA archives.
Bidder was particularly interested in studying deep sea currents, rather than the better understood movements at the surface. His work represented a forerunner of the Argo floats that have transformed our knowledge of the deep oceans. Bidder created what he called “bottom bottles” which were weighted to float two feet (60 centimeters) above the sea bed.
Rather than being washed ashore, 55% of these bottom bottles were caught in fishing nets and returned. Those bottles that did come to land, however, usually ended up in England, while surface bottles were more likely to be swept in the other direction. The migration of the Winkler’s bottle can only be imagined, but it has ended up in a similar location to many lighter bottles released in a similar spot.
Bidder found that the bottles moved in the opposite direction to the migrations of flatfish, supporting the view that bottom feeders swim against the current. He also used the proportion of bottles returned to test the intensity of fishing and the dangers of overharvesting.
True to its word, the MBA sent the Winklers an old English shilling.