On January 21, the Illman family and some friends were driving through a beach north of Wedge Island off the coast of west Australia, about 100 miles north of Perth. When the car got stopped by sand, Tonya Illman and her friend Grace Ricciardo decided to go for a walk.
Making their way back to their vehicle, they stopped to pick up some trash. Illman grabbed a brownish bottle with raised lettering, thinking it would make a nice addition to her bookshelf. (Related: "Here's Where the Ocean's Trash Comes From")
Back in the car, Illman handed the old-looking bottle off to her son's girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello, so that she could help her husband dislodge the car from the soft sand. Peering inside the uncorked bottle, Del Borrello spotted what looked like a cigarette inside. (See: "These Photos Are Total Garbage. You'll Love Them.")
They removed the fragile object from the bottle and saw it was tightly rolled and wrapped with a piece of twine. It wasn't until they were back home in Lanceline that they were able to pop the moist paper in the oven to dry it out and unravel it. Later, they would learn that the 8-inch by 6-inch slip of paper was the world's oldest message in a bottle to date.
"It was an absolute fluke," Illman's husband Kym tells The Guardian. "It won't get better than this."
S.O.S. to the World … or Not
At first, the Illmans were skeptical. But two days after the find, they reached out to the Western Australian Museum, where they met Ross Anderson, the assistant curator of maritime archaeology.
Anderson cross-referenced the dark text on the aged, cheaply made slip of paper with handwriting samples from captain's entries and determined that the message was dated June 12, 1886. That means it is 131 years and 223 days old when it was found. He adds the bottle had been thrown overboard from the German sailing ship Paula as it crossed the Indian Ocean on a journey from Cardiff, Wales, to the present-day Indonesia. These findings were confirmed by experts at the German Naval Observatory.
During this time, German crews were conducting a 69-year experiment that required them to toss thousands of bottles overboard to investigate global ocean currents. Each message contained the coordinates of where the ship was when the bottle was deployed, along with the date and name of the ship. All these details were on the message in the bottle that Illman found.
Judging from the coordinates on the paper, the bottle was tossed overboard nearly 600 miles away, somewhere west of South America. From there, the bottle likely washed ashore within a year and was buried under sand. Anderson says the bottle's cork dried out and became dislodged after storms and heavy rains. Analysis says Paula's home port was in Marseille, France. (Related: "Sunken World War II Aircraft Carrier Found by Deep-Sea Expedition")
To date, 662 other messages from the German experiment have been found and returned. The most recent discovery, a 108-year-old postcard, was made in Germany in April 2015. (Related: "Centuries of Preserved Shipwrecks Found in the Black Sea")
The Illman family have since loaned their find to the Western Australian Museum until 2020. It's currently on display for the public.
"This has been the most remarkable event in my life," Illman writes on a website dedicated to the find. "To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief. I'm still shaking."