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Woman in Australia discovers the world’s oldest message in a bottle

Photo: Ingrid Taylar

Henry Miller

It’s not every day that you find a message in a bottle, let alone one that contributes to a 132-year-old scientific experiment that began half-a-world away. Yet that is exactly what Tonya Illman discovered while walking along a Western Australia beach in January.

Illman spotted the glass bottle half buried in the sand and thought it would look good as a piece of house decoration. On the drive home Illman’s son’s girlfriend noticed that there was a piece of paper inside the uncorked bottle. Rather than risk damaging the paper, the family rushed home and heated in the oven what they quickly realized was a very old note.


Once dried, the family carefully removed the string wrapping and inspected their message in a bottle. It was in German, but Illman’s husband knew enough of the language to make out that it was not a cry for help, but a form requesting the opener to write down where the bottle was found. The form was dated June 12th, 1886.

Illman reached out to inform the Western Australia Maritime Museum of her interesting find. After some inspection, the museum concluded that the bottle and the paper were indeed from the 19th century, and that they were deliberately chucked off the German ship “Paula” as part of a research experiment on the nature of the Indian Ocean’s currents.

“Incredibly”, said Ross Anderson, the museum’s assistant curator of Maritime Archeology, “an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original Meteorological Journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard.”

The bottle was one of thousands that the Paula tossed overboard between Cardiff, Wales, and Indonesia. This particular bottle was set adrift around 600 miles off the coast of Western Australia, 131 years and 224 days before Illman unearthed it.

Illman’s discovery set a world record for the oldest message in a bottle ever found. The previous record holder was thrown in the ocean in 1906 and found in 2015.

“This has been the most remarkable event in my life,” said Illman of her extraordinary discovery. “To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief. I’m still shaking.”

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