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Bottle Cast from Ship in 1959 Discovered on Martha's Vineyard Shore

NOAA predecessor agency set bottles adrift to study ocean currents.

A collage of images showing a sealed bottle set adrift by the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey in 1949; the USCGS ship Hydrographer; and text of message found inside drift bottles that reads 'BREAK THIS BOTTLE: This bottle was released at sea as part of a large-scale study of ocean currents. Information on the date and place of release is on file at the Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington D.C. You can add to the knowledge of ocean currents by returning the addressed card with the requested information on the date and place where you found the bottle. You will receive by return mail information as to where this bottle was released. Your cooperation in giving accurate information will be of great assistance.'

Message in a Bottle

Clockwise from left: (1) the message contained inside sealed bottles set adrift by the U.S Coast & Geodetic Survey; (2) the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Ship Hydrographer, in service from 1931-1967; (3) the drift bottle recently discovered on Martha's Vineyard. Drift bottles were commonly used by U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey researchers to study currents well into the 20th century.

You never know what you might find on a beach. Just ask Keith Moreis. During a winter stroll along the shores of Martha's Vineyard in December, 2013, Mr. Moreis found a bottle cast adrift 54 years ago. But who cast the bottle into the ocean?

Set Adrift for Science

For thousands of years, people cast messages in bottles into the sea for reasons of romance, distress and, importantly, science. Ancient Greek scientists studied the Mediterranean Sea by using drift bottles to measure the currents, as did modern-age researchers around the world well into the 20th century. Such was the case with our mysterious bottle.

Fast forward to September 19, 1959. On this day, scientists on board the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Ship Hydrographer released a drift bottle containing a bright pink message that read 'BREAK THIS BOTTLE' in bold letters.

Like the ancient Greeks, these researchers were studying currents employing the age-old method of casting drift bottles. Their hope was that someone would find their bottles, follow the instructions contained within, and return them to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The location where bottles were discovered would thereby provide valuable information on area ocean currents. As it turned out, the particular bottle found by Mr. Moreis settled only about 36 miles away on the sands of Martha's Vineyard, where it presumably resided for decades! 

As anyone who loves the sea knows, traditions are important amongst seafaring people. However, things have changed since the 1950s. While sending out messages in a bottle is a fun idea and can tell us something about ocean circulation, we must remember that dumping anything into the ocean violates U.S. and international law. For more on marine debris, visit NOAA Marine Debris Program.

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Long Journey Home

Once he found the bottle, Keith Moreis didn't break it. Instead, he carefully opened it, read the now faded contents of the message, and contacted the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Woods Hole put Mr. Moreis touch with NOAA. Though the information was no longer needed due to advanced technology, Mr. Moreis's find was greatly appreciated by both the U.S. Coast Survey and the National Geodetic Survey, which are now part of the National Ocean Service under NOAA. Today, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services is the NOAA office primarily responsible for tides and currents information for the U.S.


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