Real-Life Message-in-a-Bottle Story Captures Public Imagination

Mar 3, 2014

Who was it who said the best stories are reality? Whoever it was, they were right. And who can resist a story about a message in a bottle?

Imagine stuffing messages - essentially RSVP cards - into three hundred thousand empty bottles. You'd have to be driven by an incredible passion and dedication.

Dr. Dean Bumpus was. Between 1956 and 1972, sometimes with the help of government funding, sometimes without, he bought unused bottles and gathered the "dead soldiers" of Woods Hole - rinsed out beer, whiskey, wine and champagne bottles - and filled them with cards promising a fifty cent reward for information about where the bottle was found (actually, his son Peter says he filled a good number, driven by his father's enthusiasm). He then enlisted volunteers and boats of all sizes and stripes - Navy, fishing, Coast Guard, and research ships - to drop those bottles overboard.

Now, imagine walking along a beach and finding such a bottle laying at the foot of the dunes. You'd probably be overcome with an intense curiosity about where that bottle came from, who sent it, and why.

So far, only ten percent of Bumpus' bottles have been reported found, many of those in the months and years immediately after they were deployed. But one was found just over a month ago in the dunes of Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia. The scientist who found it figured the fifty cent prize was a long shot, but he was curious to know the bottle's story. So he got in touch with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and, subsequently, Dean Bumpus' family.

Bumpus' son, Peter, says the bottles have always captured people's imaginations. A message in a bottle is just irresistable, and that was part of the point. Bumpus' main objective was scientific - he wanted to better understand coastal ocean currents. But inspiring public interest in the oceans was also part of Dean Bumpus' driving passion.

Oceanographers continue to use floats, or drifters, to track the movements of the ocean, and thousands of them can be found in the ocean today. Of course, technology has advanced significantly. But Dean Bumpus' bottle program was groundbreaking for its scope, and for a deliberate public outreach component that was well ahead of its time.