by Karen Tracy
Every year, students in the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy oceanography class sit down with a piece of official school stationery and a pencil to write a message which begins: “Dear Bottle Finder…” Their letters, photocopied by their teacher Dr. Wang, are then tightly rolled up, wrapped with string, and inserted into a glass bottle. Carefully sealed shut with hot wax, these bottles are then thrown into coastal waters—anywhere from Long Island to Maine depending on available transportation—with fingers crossed that they will turn up intact on a distant shore.
Throughout history, ocean-borne bottles have been used to send messages in times of distress (such as a bottle discovered from a passenger on the Titanic), to send a loved ones’ ashes on a final journey, or to carry letters from those believing themselves to be doomed. (Think Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”)
In addition to providing a thrill for the bottle finder upon discovery, their scientific purpose is to serve as a drift meter, a device used by oceanographers to map the location and speed of surface ocean currents. Major surface currents in the ocean move in large circles called gyres. The bottles launched by SCH Oceanography students have the potential to be swept into the North Atlantic Gyre by hitching a ride on one of the most famous warm water ocean currents in the world, the Gulf Stream. And that is exactly what happened to one special bottle!
This winter, after a 4.5-year journey circling the entire North Atlantic Ocean, one of the Class of 2015 bottles that was tossed off the coast of Portland, Maine, was discovered by a Canadian couple while on vacation in Cuba.
It was early in the new year when Dr. Wang received an email from Sylvie and Martin, native French speakers, that read:
“My partner and I were on vacation at the Valentin hotel in Cayo Cruz – Cuba – we were taking a long walk and the tide was high and that forced us to walk very close to the shore of the beach. This beach is natural so all kinds of waste discharged by the sea are there. My partner stopped to look at where some plastic content came from (most of it came from Haiti or the Dominican Republic) and at that time my gaze was drawn to this famous glass bottle! I picked it up and to my delight, I really realized that we had just discovered a famous bottle thrown into the sea which we talked about so often without ever thinking that it would really happen to us one day. So we went back to the hotel and opened it at the beach bar in front of several witnesses as amazed as we were.”
Of course, one can’t know the exact distance the bottle traveled while at sea, but armed with a solid understanding of the clockwise movement of currents, Dr. Wang suggests the bottle could have been swept as many as 6,000 miles or more over 1,600 days before washing ashore in Cuba. (Again, roughly speaking that is approximately as much as 4.8 miles per day!)
The Cuban bottle discovery is one of just three others that the school is aware of. In 2016, a family in Maine found one and in 2017 a park ranger in Long Island found another. (These bottles likely never got caught up in the gyre that took the most recent bottle on its excellent adventure around the Atlantic Ocean.)
Surprisingly, the photo that was sent by Sylvie and Martin to document the discovery revealed a mostly intact letter. It was written by Chase Haegley, a senior oceanography student in 2015. Thanks to the Science Department’s archival housekeeping, Dr. Wang was able to provide a copy of his original letter. He wrote (in part):
“I am from Philadelphia, the city of brother love, and I attend the prestigious Springside Chestnut Hill Academy known for its innovations in the Center for entrepreneurial Leadership and I go to school with notables such as phenom pitcher Mo’ne Davis.”
When SCH reached out to Chase to let him know about the discovery, he wrote back:
“I have to say that this is one of the cooler and more improbable stories that anyone could hope to be a part of. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t take me more than a couple of minutes to even remember writing the letter, but I want to express my gratitude to all of my SCH teachers and Ms. Eaton, specifically, for coming up with lessons and projects like this one that sticks with you—even if it takes five years for the punchline to land, and I can definitely promise that I’ll never have any problems remembering how the Atlantic Ocean Gyre flows! I wish that I would’ve said something a bit more meaningful in my letter, instead of filling it with inside jokes that I barely remember why they were funny at the time, but I think it does a good job reminding me of what was on my mind during my senior year at SCH, so I have no regrets. Based on the message I saw from the couple who found the bottle, it seems that the bottle fulfilled its primary purpose of brightening the day of the finder and for that, I am also grateful.”
While the discovery of the bottle and the subsequent email exchanges that have taken place have been both exciting and heartwarming, Dr. Wang said that there are a number of other important lessons she hopes students take away:
“The ‘Message in a Bottle Project’ generates a lot of excitement on the part of both the senders and the finders of the bottles,” she said. “I think it speaks to the vital connection that can still be found in actually writing letters (not text messages) and receiving them. Mapping the movement of the glass bottles also proves to the students that ocean currents are real and that they can carry a single-use plastic drink cup all the way from a storm drain to a beach anywhere in the world. We can all help to keep plastic out of the ocean by avoiding plastic packaging in the products we buy, using cloth shopping bags and by picking up and recycling plastic when we see it on the ground.”
Karen Tracy is Director of Communications at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy