I am often asked why people send messages in bottles and why we romanticize them so much. I’m sharing my response to those questions here in hopes that you will comment and respond to this line of questioning, too. Why are we so fascinated by messages in bottles? Why do we send them? Why do we hope to find them? What do they tell us about ourselves and about our world? My responses are right here. I hope you’ll respond in the comments below 🙂
I’ll start with the questions about why people send them. There are several reasons, really: Some people send messages in bottles out of scientific interest, to see where they will end up, learn something about ocean currents, etc. Others send MIBs for romantic reasons–often to commemorate the love of the senders, or to look for love in the finder. Sometimes it is an act that commemorates friendship (little kids often send them together). One category of senders do it purely as a joke, thinking that *surely* no one will ever find their bottle. The bummer is, these folks usually don’t include much information, so that when I do find it, I can never connect with them. Others seem to do it out of boredom–I found a bottle from one couple who sent theirs because they were bored on a cruise ship that was sitting out in the ocean broken down and getting repaired. Others simply seek a penpal from a foreign land. There are some who send messages in different kinds of bottles using different kinds of papers and inks and bottle-sealing methods in order to try to find the best possible combination for longevity. The more I think about it, the more I find–the more I realize there are just about as many reasons people send messages in bottles as there are people in the world…
As for why the whole thing has become so romanticized–man, that’s a big one! I think about this all the time.
Let’s start with love. We all know that divorce is ever more common (at least in the states), and that people are waiting until later and later to get married the first time. Facts like these suggest that either it is becoming harder to find good healthy love, or that it has *always* been hard to find good healthy love…but we are only now starting to really see that and accept it. I lean toward the latter way of thinking. Similarly, finding a message in a bottle (or having someone find the one you sent) seems so unlikely, we can hardly conceive of it happening. Almost, you might say, as unlikely as finding the love of your life. So I think there’s some connection between these things rooted in the sheer rarity of either happening that makes us associate them with each other.
Another big reason for the romanticism behind MIBs is that they loom large in popular culture. There’s the Sting song, for starters. I’m a musician and people always ask me if my band plays that song (I wish!). That song has been hugely popular since it came out long ago. So messages in bottles absorbed some of the glow of pop music and that has only been built upon by other songs mentioning messages in bottles, if less artfully, like Jason DeRulo’s “Message in the Bottle” or Kenny Chesney’s “Pirate Flag”.
Then there are books, the most prominent of which is Nicholas Sparks’ Message in a Bottle which was then turned into a movie. That one really focused on the romantic potential of the message in a bottle. And, you know, this is just a work of fiction from recent years. But in fact, there has been at least one real life story of a man and woman meeting via a message in a bottle and ending up married. There’s another crazy story of a couple who was moving and in the process of cleaning out their boxes, they found a letter from one to the other as children that neither remembered. It turned out that, although they had been together for years as adults, neither recalled the fact that they had been the sender and finder of a message in a bottle when they were children. So they knew each other before they knew each other…It blows my mind!
I’ve mentioned just some of the big “heavy hitters” of MIBs in popular culture, but there are more. This concept seems to pop up everywhere. It’s in a ton of video games. I discovered one recently when I played through “Zelda: Occarina of Time” on Nintendo 64 which I haven’t played since I was 16. There’s a critical task in the game involving a message in a bottle. Madness! Many other video games have levels or tasks that involve a message in a bottle.
There’s one “message in a bottle” I’ll mention isn’t technically a message in a bottle. The Voyager space probes were both fitted with golden discs containing information about humanity–everything from the sound of a heartbeat to brainwaves to greetings in many languages to rock ‘n’ roll and classical music–a sort of “cosmic” message in a bottle. These messages, engraved in gold, have now traveled beyond our solar system, and are the farthest manmade objects from earth. We’ve never sent anything farther, and, unless we develop some pretty impressive methods of transportation, nothing manmade will ever catch up or pass these messages. Who, I wonder, will find them? And when?
So I guess maybe all of this makes me wonder if it’s a chicken/egg situation: Do we romanticize messages in bottles and then pop culture picks up on that? Or do the makers of pop culture romanticize messages in bottles and we emulate that? I’m really not sure I know.
Whether pop culture or regular individuals are behind it–I think we are fascinated by messages in bottle because they stand for so much. They stand for science, they stand for love, they stand for friendship, they stand for curiosity, they stand for history. They make us pay attention to the ocean and remember that it is the water that connects all life on earth. And I hope–I really hope–they remind us that the ocean gives back to us what we put into it. Maybe this will make us more careful with how we treat the ocean in the 21st century than we were in the 20th century. I fear that, if we do not start caring aggressively for the ocean and protecting it from the harms that come with industrialization and globalization, it may just be the whole human race who needs to send a message in a bottle asking to be rescued from the world we have created.