Want to Read a 106-Year-Old Message in a Bottle? Too Bad

The notion of a message tucked into a bottle conjures up images of lonely sailors at sea desperately trying to reach loved ones or pirates sending secret messages on the whereabouts of buried treasure. But do people actually find them?

They do, and more than you might think. During a recent beach stroll, a Canadian man stumbled on a 106-year-old corked note believed to contain a message from 1906. The catch: He refuses to open it.

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Steve Thurber was walking along Schooner’s Cove, a hiking trail and beach in Tofino, British Columbia when he spotted a rusty bottle lying in the sand, according to an article published this week in Global News. The bottle was sealed with a piece of paper inside.

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Thurber did not want to open or break the bottle for fear of damaging the letter inside, but he was able to make out through the glass that the note was dated Sept. 29, 1906, and was signed by Earl Willard, who was sailing from San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington —a distance of 813.8 miles — on a boat called the Steamer Rainier. Willard had thrown the bottle after 76 hours at sea. The return address on the letter is now that of the Railway museum in Bellingham.

“Maybe there was only one [bottle] that the guy sent out and I found it. It is like one in a billion chances,” Thurber told Global News. He did some digging online and suspects the bottle may be the oldest of its kind in the world. Currently, the oldest documented message in a bottle spent 97 years and 309 days at sea, according to the Guinness World Records. Captain C.H. Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation threw it into the sea in an attempt to chart water currents. He placed a postcard promising six pence to the lucky finder.

"This is the oldest message in a bottle that I've ever heard of," Lynette Miller, head of collections at the Washington State Historical Society, told Yahoo Shine. "The odds of finding it are astronomical. Seawater doesn't really damage glass bottles, only discolors them; however, it's surprising that the bottle didn't break, considering how long it spent bumped around on rocks or sand. It's also surprising that the cork didn't disintegrate; however it's possible that the sender applied a sealant to keep it closed." Miller says the bottle is Thurber's to keep, but if he changes his mind about opening it, his best bet is to consult a professional conservator who can unroll the paper inside.

People have been throwing bottles with messages into the sea for centuries. According to a story published in National Geographic, during the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England suspected that British spies were sending secret messages home in bottles and created a job called “uncorker of ocean bottles,” which made it criminal for anyone but the appointed person to open them. The bottles have roots in romance, too: During the 20th century, World War I soldiers facing death threw bottles into the sea containing love notes to their wives. Today, oceanographers throw bottles to study global currents.

Amazingly, people still find them. In August, the New York Daily News reported that a 61-year-old New Jersey man named Dennis Komsa threw a bottle containing a message into the sea when he was 12 years old. Fifty years later and only two-tenths of a mile from where it was thrown, it was found by a man sorting through debris after Hurricane Sandy. In June, the WJBK news station in Detroit reported on a diver who found a 97-year-old hidden bottle in the St. Clair River in Michigan. The message simply read: "Having a great time at Tashmoo" (a now-closed amusement park). And in 2010, West Hawaii Today reported that a 10-year-old Oregon boy threw a bottle into the sea. The inside note read: "Dear finder of my message, my name is Thomas and I live in Oregon. I'm ten years old and this week I'm salmon fishing deep in the ocean. I would like to hear from you." A 9-year-old girl in Hawaii found the bottle and contacted the boy using his mother’s email address (which he had included).

As for Thurber, his refusal to open the bottle has sparked debate from people commenting on the first news report of his finding. "How can he not open it?!" wrote Emily. "Wow, awesome! I wonder what the message says?" wrote Barbara Wagar. And "Whole story about the bottle and they don't even tell us the message," wrote Josh.

Still, Thurber is committed to preserving the secret message. He told Global News, "I guess it is a chance thing that you find something that somebody sent out into the water. I mean, even if it was a year later or ten years later, but a hundred years later is just unreal."

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