Tonya Illman wasn't thinking about history when she picked up an old bottle on the beach.
As Thrillist reports, Tonya was walking on the beach at Wedge Island in Western Australia, thinking more about the litter than anything else. Deciding that she would help keep the beach cleaner, the Perth native picked up an old bottle lying in the sand.
It was more attractive than she had expected, and Tonya was pleased that she could put it to use instead of throwing it away. As she told KymIllman.com:
“I picked it up thinking it might look nice on display in my home.”
Tonya gave the bottle to her son's girlfriend to hold while she helped her husband, Kym, move the car. When the young woman peered in the bottle, she saw something that looked like an old cigarette. Tipping the object out of the bottle, she realized that she was holding a rolled-up note tied with string.
Because the paper was damp, Tonya didn't want to risk tearing the note by unfurling it there. She told KymIllman.com they speculated about the note while they waited for it to dry enough to open:
“There was a lot of anticipation among the party as to what the 'message in a bottle' might say, but it was too wet to open without damaging the note, so we took it back to Lancelin and placed in a warm oven for a few minutes to dry it out”
When they unrolled the note the next morning, it was obvious they had stumbled upon a mystery. It was much older than they expected — so old that the twine had left marks in the paper. They couldn't decipher most of the contents, as it was written in German, but the beginning numbers of the year didn't need translation. The note was written in the 19th century.
The worlds oldest known message in a bottle found just north of Wedge Island in WA by this Perth couple. It was found half buried on the beach nearly 132 years after it was tossed overboard from a German ship @9NewsPerth pic.twitter.com/V4Bt9FLGci
— Michael Stamp (@StampyMichael) March 6, 2018
Over the next several weeks, Kym and Tonya worked with historians to figure out the origin of the bottle and note.
They learned that the bottle itself was a 19th century Dutch gin bottle. The note contained details about when the bottle was thrown overboard, along with a request to return the paper to the German embassy or the agency conducting research.
Using the information on the note, ship's logs, and help from someone in Germany, the Illmans and researchers from Western Australian Maritime Museum traced the bottle to a ship called the “Paula.” The ship had been traveling from Cardiff, Wales to Indonesia, probably with a load of coal.
The bottle was thrown overboard as part of a research project. As Kym explained to Today Tonight:
“The German weather service wanted to measure current drift. So they would have captains of ships throw over these bottles over the side of their boat and then they would know where they turned up.”
Strangely, the Illmans' bottle didn't travel very far or very long. Using the numbers, coordinates, and date on the note, they figured out that the captain of the Paula tossed the bottle overboard on June 12, 1886, less than 600 miles from where it was found.
Researchers believe it didn't take long for the bottle to travel to the beach. It probably washed ashore within six to 12 months of being dropped in the ocean. And there it sat, buried in the sand for more than a century before Tonya saw it and thought about putting it on her bookshelf.
The fact that the bottle was out of human hands for 131 years and 223 days makes it the oldest known message in a bottle, beating the previous record holder by about 23 years.
According to NPR, thousands of bottles were thrown overboard during the experiment, and more than 600 were returned. However, before the Illmans' discovery, the most recent find was in 1934 in Denmark.
Presumably, that means there are many bottles and notes still waiting to be discovered. Tonya confessed to Today Tonight that she doesn't expect to find another but it's hard not to keep an eye on the sand whenever she goes to the beach. As she told NPR:
“This has been the most remarkable event in my life. To think this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief. I'm still shaking.”
The bottle and note are now in the Western Australian Maritime Museum.