Volunteers Send Messages in Bottles Around the World

Global ocean currents represent one of the most complex fluid dynamics problem a scientist can tackle. However, an understanding of how things float around and through our planet’s waterways is not only crucial for transportation vessels, commercial fishing, and water safety (read more), but also for tracking and managing less controlled events such as oil spills or migration of aquatic life.

Measuring the local ocean current — as a captain heads into harbor or simply tries to stay on course — has been performed by mariners since boats began to float. Simple techniques using a floating object, an observer and a timing device can provide very localized and crude measurements for current flow velocities. In the 1700s, mathematicians Joseph Louis Lagrange and Leonhard Euler developed models for describing and measuring fluid flows, and sophisticated techniques of today are designed from their work. From sophisticated drifters with on-board transmitters, acoustic Doppler shift measuring devices, to on-shore high-frequency radar antennas, much more detailed views of the flowing ocean can be visualized.

Drift Bottle Project leader, Eddy Carmack

Taking a more simplistic approach, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada organization lead by scientist Eddy Carmack has harnessed the power of citizen scientists, students, and other interested volunteers from around the world to discover new complexities in the oceans’ currents. Considered to be a final hope effort for the unfortunate stranded island visitor, the classic “message in a bottle” can potentially drift far and wide around the globe until an unsuspecting beach comer discovers the washed up SOS.

Since 2000, The Drift Bottle Project has tossed nearly 4,500 bottles into the waters off of British Columbia all the way to the shores of Greenland. Contained inside are messages describing the drop time and place, and a request to contact Carmack’s research team if found. Most of the bottles don’t make it very far… they either drift to a local shoreline or are damaged and lost to the ocean’s depths. However, some have made quite the journey. One reported bottle started from Baffin Island and drifted four years until being found some 9,300 miles away in Puerto Rico.

This great and inexpensive project, although not sophisticated enough to provide a high level of detail mapping of ocean currents, is perfect for communities and students to get involved in thinking about our oceans and our environment. Hundreds of people have been involved up north, and it would be a relatively straightforward program for any coastal community, classroom or science organization to develop and implement. If you would be interested in creating a new drift bottle program for your area, please contact DPR and we’ll help connect you with resources and information to begin planning and development.

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“Ocean bottle drop expected to reveal mysteries of currents” :: Calgary Herald :: October 1, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

Learn more about how ocean currents are measured:
NOAA’s Ocean Currents Tutorial :: [ DOWNLOAD PDF or READ ONLINE ]

1 thought on “Volunteers Send Messages in Bottles Around the World”

  1. I teach high school Ecology and my class is working on a drift bottle project. Any ideas on the best way to construct the bottles or track them would be greatly appreciated. We are located in north central Florida and plan to drop our bottles in the Gulf Stream off St. Augustine Beach.

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Last updated August 7, 2022