Message in a Bottle From WHOI Ship Turns Up 58 Years Later

Two weeks ago Warren Joyce found (1) this bottle on the shore of Sable Island in Nova Scotia. Inside he discovered (2) the note and (3) the postcard, all tied to a 1956 WHOI project studying ocean currents.PHOTOS COURTESY WARREN N. JOYCE - Two weeks ago Warren Joyce found (1) this bottle on the shore of Sable Island in Nova Scotia. Inside he discovered (2) the note and (3) the postcard, all tied to a 1956 WHOI project studying ocean currents.

A glass bottle containing a type-written note dating back to the 1950s was found on an island off Nova Scotia on January 20. The bottle was part of a  Woods Hole project.

The note inside, a yellowed piece of paper, identifies the bottle as no. 21588. According to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s archivist David Sherman, no. 21588 is one of 12 bottles released from the research vessel Albatross III on April 26, 1956, at 8:30 PM not far off Nova Scotia.

The note begins: “This bottle is one of several hundred released at sea to study ocean currents. The exact place and date of release has been recorded and is on file.” The note continues with more details of the WHOI-initiated project, and then ends, “Your cooperation in giving accurate information will be of great aid.”

Warren N. Joyce, a shark technician for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Canada, found the bottle while combing a beach in Novia Scotia.

Of the 12 bottles from 1956, Mr. Sherman said that he believes four others washed ashore and were found.

“I go to Sable Island every year and always keep an eye out for bottles after finding a note from a gentleman in Florida back in 2009,” Mr. Joyce said in a written response from Canada. “My main thought was that I was fortunate to find a second one,” he said after coming across the bottle.

“We had been conducting a census of tagged seals on the island and while looking for marked animals, I stopped in a little sand gully by a small pond just in from the beach. I looked down at some garbage that had collected in this little gully and there were about 4-5 bottles sitting there,” his response continued. “One in particular was plugged and had a piece of paper inside. I picked it up and immediately saw the words “Break this Bottle” through the sand blasted glass. I could see from the writing that it had been sent out from Woods Hole and offered a reward of $0.50 for the return information (which made me think it was old)... Once home, I made a quick search on the internet and found information on Dean Bumpus’ work in the 1960’s and 1970’s which made me think this was one of the bottles he deployed.”

Mr. Sherman confirmed Mr. Warren’s findings. The bottle was part of a project initiated by Dean F. Bumpus to study ocean currents on the surface of the ocean.

Mr. Bumpus began his career in 1937 as a biological technician at WHOI, where he worked for 40 years. There he helped engineer these “drifters” or glass bottles.

Mr. Sherman said the scientists would drop a block of bottles together in groups of varying sizes, mostly in dozens, sixes and twos.

Reward for Found Bottles

The bottles would eventually spread out and float on the surface of the ocean measuring the current. Those who came across them were awarded 50 cents if they returned the bottles with information, including the whereabouts of the found bottle. 

“It was very useful information then,” Mr. Sherman said. Today, the technology has advanced, he said, but these floaters proved useful, albeit basic ocean data about currents and the travel paths of objects in the water.

After finding the bottle and finding the origins, Mr. Joyce returned to the bottle to WHOI. “Don’t worry about the 50 cents,” he wrote in a blind e-mail to a generic WHOI address, “” Upon its arrival, WHOI officials confirmed the historic document.

“There’s been a lot of attention over this,” Mr. Sherman said. “In a historical perspective, it is interesting.”

Of the 12 bottles from 1956, Mr. Sherman said that he believes four others washed ashore and were found: one in Eastham on the Cape; two others in Nova Scotia; and one in Florida, though those bottles were found close to the date of release. 

Message In A Bottle

WHOI detailed the story of the historical find yesterday in its Oceanus Magazine. You can read that story here

“There is something intriguing about finding [a bottle],” Mr. Joyce said. “For me, it’s mostly where it had come from and why someone sent it in the first place, and how long it might have been at sea.

“The bottle I found in 2009 was just a plastic water bottle with a man’s business card and a US $1 bill. That had been the first message in a bottle I had found. When I wrote him he said he had been sailing in the Gulf Stream off Florida and just decided to toss a bottle over to see where it would go. Quite a few have been recovered on Sable Island by others over the years.”


Mr. Bumpus also added other components to his “floaters” over the course of this research.

In article published in the Enterprise on May 9, 1961, a report read, “Modern design and materials have at last caught up with the bottom drift bottle used for generations by marine scientists to study currents along the ocean bottom.

“Shaped like long-stemmed mushrooms, the drifters are designed to settle to the bottom and move along with the current until they are scooped up in a fisherman’s dredge or perhaps washed up on the shore.

“The old-fashioned bottle consisted simply of a corked pop bottle, ballasted with wire so it would sink and containing a note to the finder and a stick to keep the cork from being forced back into the bottle by pressure of deep water. The same sort of bottles without the wire ballast and stick are still used for tracking surface currents.”

In an article published September 15, 1972, an Enterprise reporter wrote: “ ‘Talking drift bottles’ being developed by Dean F. Bumpus, Foster L. Striffler and Charles E. Parker at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution may provide an effective and relatively inexpensive tool for investigating a host of oceanographic mysteries, from the migrations of icebergs to the transportation of haddock eggs by ocean currents.”


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