Message in a Bottle Disguised as Trash

A couple weeks ago, my dad and I were on a little adventure in a far-flung corner of the Caribbean, hoping we might find a message in a bottle or some other beach treasure among all the trash.

Clint Buffington and Bob Buffington message in a bottle

Me and my dad with some of our message in a bottle finds.

We were walking down the beach about 20 or 30 feet apart, when he called out to me.

“I’ve got something I want you to check out, Clint!” He shouted over the wind and crashing waves. “It’s probably trash but I want to get your eyes on it. It’s just some kind of wrapper.”

My dad has found messages in bottles before (like this 30 year old one, and this unsolved mysterious one from Colombia’s Naval training ship, or this one that looked like an empty envelope), and he knows how weird they can look.

When we find ourselves standing out in the middle of nowhere, as we now were, considering the prospect of adding a hefty glass bottle to one of our packs that we would then have to carry for miles over sand in the merciless Caribbean sun, we ask each other for help determining whether something is a message in a bottle, or just someone’s wadded up napkin or empty potato chip bag. It’s not always clear – not by a long shot. I am still looking for the author of a message written on a Kleenex tissue and stuffed into a champagne bottle, which looked like trash to me!

My dad handed me the bottle. It was an old soda bottle – from the 1970s as best I could tell. Inside was clearly trash – just a wadded up Kodak film wrapper.

“Look like trash to you?” he said.

“I don’t know…kind of…” I said, turning it over in my hands.

“It’s gotta be. That’s just a wrapper. Right?”

“So you don’t want to carry it home?”

“Mmm, not really. Do you?”

“Well, I don’t want to carry it, but I don’t want to just leave it,” I said. “This is unusual enough that we should check it out.”

We stared at the bottle for a minute.

I tried unscrewing the cap. It didn’t budge.

“Dad, I don’t know… Why would anyone put a Kodak film wrapper in a bottle? I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve found lots of wrappers in bottles, but never a film wrapper. That’s really unusual. I think we either have to carry it home or bust it open right here. But I don’t think we should leave it without at least checking.”

“Well, I’m not carrying it home. Are you?”

“Nope. You found it.”

“Let me see that thing,” he said. My dad took the bottle back from me and broke it open right there. The Kodak wrapper flew out, and my dad pick it up.

He began to unfold the wrapper when clear as day, a little edge of old, brown paper appeared and there was writing on it!

“Holy crap!” we said in comic unison.

Dad snapped the wrapper closed again as if trying to prevent the escape of something dangerous. See, these old messages dry out almost instantly and become extremely fragile. We figured our only hope for keeping the paper supple enough to unfold was to keep it wrapped in the film wrapper until we got home to examine it. I can’t tell you how hard it was to not open the message right there on the beach!

Even though no one lives on this island and the chances of anyone ever stepping on the broken glass were remote, we gathered up the pieces, feeling now a little stupid about opening the thing out there in the wild.

Lesson: If something looks like a message in a bottle, DO NOT OPEN IT ON THE WINDY, WILD BEACH.

49 Year Old Message in a Bottle Preserved by Kodak Film Wrapper

That night, we got home around sunset, and my dad took out the Kodak wrapper.

Carefully, he unfolded the wrapper again and found the paper inside was still supple. It hadn’t dried out yet! He gingerly removed the paper from the wrapper and unfolded it.

This was when my head exploded.

Joel Nathan's 49 year old message in a bottle

1970?! 1970?!!?! Are you kidding me!? This was a 49 year old message in a bottle! Well, 48.75, but that’s splitting hairs, don’t you think? This thing was sent before my dad even knew my mom! My mom was still in high school! We had just landed on the moon the year before! Nixon was president! I wasn’t even a twinkle in anybody’s eye yet! Sting was only 19 years old and was almost a decade away from writing “Message in a Bottle“!

Questions – a million questions all at once!

How old was Joel Nathan when he sent this message? Was he a kid? Was he older, maybe retired? How did he get the idea? Is he alive today? Would he still live in Miami Beach? How would we find him? Would we be able to find him? Did he have kids? If he’s not alive, can we find them? What was he doing in Port Royal, South Carolina in 1970 when he sent the message? Would we be on our own in this search, or would people help?

At least one of our questions was answered: Why would someone wrap a message in a a film wrapper before putting it in a bottle? Well, DUH! The whole point of a film wrapper is to protect the contents (film) from light exposure! It’s the perfect thing to wrap a message in, and it’s why this message is perfectly legible after half a century!

But the big question remained: Is Joel Nathan alive, and can we find him?

The Search for Joel Nathan, Author of the 1970 Message in a Bottle

As soon as I got back to Utah, I began searching online for Joel Nathan of Miami Beach, Florida. We sent messages to a few Joel Nathans online, but no one has responded. Most of them do not seem like good candidates – either way too young, or they have no connection to Florida, etc.

Joel Nathan's 49 year old message in a bottle and Kodak film wrapper

There is, of course, a sadder possibility. There’s no way to know how old Joel Nathan was when he wrote this message. He could have been just visiting Port Royal as a 10 year old kid, or he could have been sightseeing at age 60 or 70, or he could have been a young Marine Corps recruit at Parris Island which is in Port Royal, SC (the Vietnam War was still going in 1970). If he was of retirement age, he probably isn’t around anymore. Retired folks often send messages in bottles. For example, John Freeland’s message in a bottle was sent during his retired years, and he was gone before I found the message (though I did get to meet his family!).

My dad found this message in a bottle on the beach – not buried in the sand– so it had just washed up and must have been circulating the North Atlantic Gyre all this time! (Remember “gyre” is the word oceanographers use to refer to a circuit of water in the ocean – essentially, each Gyre is an ocean current or series of intertwined currents that make a circuit, as seen below). It would have circled the North Atlantic a lot of times before coming to rest in the Caribbean. In Flotsametrics, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer reckons the North Atlantic Gyre (aka the Columbus Gyre), which has a circumference of about 8,000 miles, has an “orbital period” of about 3.3 years. Different objects drift at different speeds, but if Joel Nathan’s 49 year old message in a bottle followed Ebbesmeyer’s math, it could have circulated as many as 15 times!

While looking for Joel Nathan, I did discover that the address he gives in the message is that of a condominium, Parkview Point, which was built in 1964, and thus must have been Joel’s home when he wrote the message. Of course it’s still unclear whether he was a child or a grown man when he sent the message, but I can’t help wondering if someone in that building knows or knew Joel Nathan or his family…

Sadly, I don’t have the time to drive to southern Florida and start knocking on doors at Parkview Point, so my feeling is that the only way to find Joel Nathan is to spread the word online until he or someone who knows him learns of our search and reaches out.

One thing I am confident about is this: The address in the note may be a helpful starting point, but there is just about no way he still lives there 49 years later…

Help Solve a Message in a Bottle!

Want to knock out your good deed for the day? Well, you can help make a little message-in-a-bottle magic happen by sharing this story with your friends and family far and wide! Maybe you don’t know Joel Nathan, but it could be that someone you know knows him or his friends. With your help, I know we can solve this 49 year old message in a bottle! It’s a small world — let’s do this!

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My dad with the 49 year old message in a bottle he found.

My dad with the 49 year old message in a bottle he found.