She had never been an adventurous woman. But as the family sat around the table and stared at the object, even she felt a rush of adrenaline.
It was like being thrown into the middle of an elaborate mystery. Was it real or an elaborate hoax? And what exactly were the foreign language and odd string of numbers?
Tonya Illman and her family were finishing their stroll along the remote, sandy dunes of Wedge Island, Australia.
It had been a much-needed day of bonding and reconnection, but it was time to head back to their cars. Little did she know that something astounding was buried just a few feet away … waiting to be discovered.
She was about to kiss her son and his girlfriend goodbye when her toe dragged through the sand and hit something solid. It didn’t feel like a rock though.
It gave a hollow “clunk” and became dislodged. It was yellow and brown, like the color of molasses, with a shine that caught the afternoon sun. She reached down.
Tonya let out an amused chuckle as she pulled out an old, weathered bottle. “This would look great on the bookshelf,” she said to her husband as she wiped off the grains and grime.
It wasn’t like any bottle she had come across before. It must have been old. The girlfriend, however, saw something else – something more intriguing.
Just as Tonya was about to drop the bottle in her bag, the girl leaned in and squinted. “Umm, can I see that?”
She took the antique and held it up to the sunbeams. Her eyes turned wide and her mouth dropped open. “Oh my god,” she muttered. “There’s something inside.”
There was no cork stopper or wax left. Whatever it was had been left to the elements.
Tonya gave it a shake – there was indeed something rolling around inside. Her heart beat faster, and she held her breath as she tipped it over. A long curl of paper tied with twine slipped out.
The dampness had left the paper stuck together and the twine left deep indentations, so they weren’t able to unroll it without destroying it.
Tonya bit her lip as she wracked her brain for a solution. Suddenly, she had a brilliant idea – but it was also an idea that would horrify some people.
She rushed home and turned on the oven! Keeping it on the lowest setting, she dried out the paper enough that they could finally unroll the yellowed scrap.
There was writing on the paper – faded and penned in elegant cursive. The family leaned in and held their breath. There was a date. It started with 18.
The next problem? The words weren’t in English. Tonya’s husband tilted his head and rolled the words around in his mouth.
“I think it’s German,” he said. The thrill of discovery exploded, and they broke out their laptops to learn more. It wasn’t long until they discovered an incredible fact.
It turned out the bottles were part of an old German experiment that took place between 1864 and 1933.
The numbers seemed to be the corresponding locations and dates. She reached for her phone. It was time to contact the experts. After weeks of emails and international cooperation, the results would make a new world record.
With the help of the current German and Australian maritime curator authorities, the note was proven to be real.
She held her breath and gawked at the find. Her family had discovered the world’s oldest message in a bottle! But what exactly was the German experiment?
It turns out, the country’s Naval Observatory had instructed several ships to drop bottles in the ocean so they could research ocean and object drift.
Her particular bottle was dropped by the “Paula” in 1886. The event turned even more surreal when the Guinness Book of World Records contacted them.
Their note had beat out the 2015 discovery of a similar experiment done by the Marine Biological Associate of Plymouth, England – by a lot.
The Illman’s bottle had waited 131 years and 223 days for someone to find it. Then, another wonderful thing happened.
News sites and social media outlets rushed in to interview them. It might have been a simple story, but it was steeped in rich history.
In the end, the family gave the bottle and note to the WA Maritime Measure, but they received a copy to keep for themselves. Tonya looks back on the day with one important thought.
“We talk about it daily, how bizarre the circumstances surrounding the find were.” “It’s a billion to one chance, but at some point in history, someone was likely to unearth it.”
It’s rare to have experiences and memories that span the globe and rest across centuries. They are very grateful for theirs.