Sometimes a spring holiday is just a slightly-off-season vacation. Other times it’s the chance to become part of the longest running citizen-science experiment in history.
For Marianne Winkler, a retired post office worker, it was the latter.
Ms. Winkler stumbled upon a message in a bottle while vacationing in Germany’s North Frisian Islands last April. This week, Guinness World Records confirmed the bottle is the oldest message in a bottle ever found, dating back over 108 years to a science experiment conducted by noted marine biologist George Parker Bidder.
Dr. Bidder had launched thousands of similar bottled messages between 1904 and 1906 to better understand ocean currents in the North Sea, according to the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England.
“He sailed from a port on the east coast of England and released bottles in batches,” Guy Baker, communications officer for the Association, explained in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
Bidder made careful notes about when and where he released the bottles. Inside the bottles, a visible message instructed finders to break the bottle and an attached postcard pre-addressed to the Marine Biological association could be found inside.
The postcard asked the finder to record where the bottle was found and when. The reward for turning it in: one shilling to be mailed to the participant upon completion.
When Winkler found the message, she followed the dated instructions and sent the postcard by mail.
“It came in an envelope addressed to Bidder,” Mr. Baker said. As Bidder served as president of the Association between 1939-1945 and portraits of him still hang in the halls, it wasn’t long before team members figured out what was happening.
And although the shilling reward is dated, the Association was able to find one on eBay and complete the promise – the end to a captivating vacation story that began as a cutting-edge research project.
“This was the best technology available at the time,” Baker said, in reference to the bottled messages. “The bottles were [Bidder’s] own invention.”
The bottles are called bottomtrailers and designed to rest near the bottom of the sea. They were carefully weighted to sink below the surface. A wire attached to the bottom kept the bottles about two feet above the sea bed, perfect for fishing nets to pick up.
The data from the results provided a clear line between where the bottle was released and where it was found. And the time difference meant scientists had a rough idea of how long the journey took.
By comparing the results from bottomtrailers and bottles that sat on the surface of the ocean, Bidder was able to gain a better understanding of how ocean currents differed at different depths.
“It was the first time instruments had been made that could record the currents, but it depended on fisherman to report the finding,” Baker said.
The Association believes this could make the bottled message experiment one of the first citizen-science experiments, experiments that involve citizens to help gain data. And with 108 years and 138 days between when the bottle was released and found, it could also be one of the longest running citizen-science experiments as well.
But for vacationers looking to join in, it’s likely too late.
Most of the bottles were found within months or a few years after they were released. The Association is not expecting any more postcards addressed to Bidder.
“The North Sea is pretty consistently trolled, so I doubt we’ll see any more,” Baker said. “We aren’t holding our breaths.”