Everything in a Bottle (and Some Stuff That Isn’t)

July 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve often marveled at the variety of things that end up in bottles on the beach. I mean, the variety among the messages folks write is amazing in itself. But then, beyond that, there’s a lot of other…stuff…that people put into bottles, often for reasons unknown.

In truth, every bottle on the beach sends a message, doesn’t it? Sometimes, the message seems to be: “I was sent here by someone who doesn’t care about destroying fragile ecosystems!” Sometimes, the message is more like: “Oops! I was using this bottle when the wind kicked up and blew it into the sea.” Many bottles (and other objects) are spilled from ships during storms, or find their way into the ocean after having been dumped in a river. In any case, lying there in piles of thousands on the beach, the collective message is clear: this is not good.

Some things in bottles send messages I may never be able to decipher.

For example, I often find plastic bottles full (full!) of cigarette butts. Isn’t that the perfect image of waste?


Maybe this tells the story of a party? At least, I certainly hope all these butts came from a group rather than an individual!

Then there’s the frequent chips-bag-in-a-bottle, or muffin-wrapper-in-a-bottle.

There’s the eye-catching but frustrating napkin in a bottle:


Of course, hygiene items are always a big hit. Especially toothbrushes. Here are just a few of the dozens of plastic soda bottles containing toothbrushes I have found over the years.


Toothbrushes in a bottle 2

I’m guessing that people who live/work on boats or oil platforms store toothbrushes this way, and that these bottles occasionally find their way overboard, either intentionally or accidentally.

Then there are more interesting things. A couple years ago I found this:

IMG_3083 IMG_3084

Any guesses as to what that is?


It’s a diabetes test strip. In a film canister. Found on a deserted beach.

Why Starburst

I found a big plastic water bottle full of corn a couple years back. Yep, just corn. Now, look. If there are two things we do not need more of in this world they are plastic bottles and corn. So to all you corn bottle throwers, knock it off!

No More Corn in a Bottle

Actually, I suspect this might be another storage technique–if you live on a coast and need a cheap way to store your grain, why not use a free plastic bottle that washed up on your beach? But again–as for how it made its way into the ocean, we may never know. Did a storm or a flood hit a village and suck it out to sea that way?

I recently found a single seed-head in a bottle. Looks kind of like wheat to me, but hard to tell? You can see it’s soaked and the grains have swelled up. Doesn’t seem like a storage method in this case. Could someone have hoped this bottle would break open on a distant shore, populating a new land with this variety of wheat or grass or whatever it is? What do you think?

IMG_2885 IMG_2886

Then there was the time I found a plastic bottle full of what appeared to be human hair. Barf.

And if that’s not weird enough for you, how bout this: One time I found an entire chicken corpse in a plastic bottle. The whole thing. I am mystified as to how it got in there, because each part appeared to be larger than the neck of the bottle would allow. Is it possible that someone squeezed a chick into a bottle and then grew it there until it died, finally launching the bottle to sea? It’s hard to imagine someone being that cruel—but it’s very difficult to understand how a whole chicken could have gotten into that bottle, which was a standard, two-liter water bottle. I wish I had taken a picture. I thought about it at the time, and then I thought, why on earth would I want a picture of a chicken corpse in a bottle? And, now, here I am, lacking proof… I count myself very lucky to meet as many senders of MIBs as I do—but what I wouldn’t give to meet the person behind the chicken in a bottle!

I have found porn in a bottle, screws in a bottle, a flag in a bottle, batteries—I mean, if it fits in a bottle, chances are I have found it. Even if it doesn’t fit in a bottle (like a whole chicken corpse…) I’ll bet someone has found a way to get it into a bottle.

Usually I like to wrap up these posts with a nice, clear point. But maybe there isn’t one this time? I mean, there’s the pollution thing. Let’s tuck that under the pillow and sleep on it.

But as for why people put bizarre things into bottles and then launch them (or lose them) at sea—what can I possibly say about that? What does that tell us about humanity? Maybe it just goes to show that humans are fundamentally unpredictable.

Phillipe Cousteau is credited with saying “The ocean is the conscience of our civilization”. Curt Ebbesmeyer talks about the ocean as “remembering” what we put into it. In many ways, the stuff that washes up on beaches tells a remarkably full and vivid story about humankind. It is a rare thing to have authority over your legacy, over the story people tell about you after you leave this earth. But we can do that with the ocean. We can control how we treat it and how it “remembers” us and tells our story back to us on the world’s beaches with flotsam. We can write that story however we want.

At the moment, the story we are writing looks a lot like this:


But the important question is: What is the story you WANT to write? How do you turn this story around and make your vision real?


June 25, 2015 § 8 Comments

I have now been hunting messages in bottles for 8 years. That’s almost a third of my life. It’s no wonder this work has become such an important part of my identity.

Meditating on Messages in Bottles Identity

What amazes me, though, is how it keeps teaching me about people and our planet. I have learned about ocean science, humans, the history of bottle making, and the history of messages in bottles (not to mention other forms of secret/hidden messages and communication); I have learned how to reveal invisible writing–I’ve basically had to become an amateur detective, and it has probably earned me as many real friends as any other pursuit I’ve engaged in. It never gets old!

Finding Messages in Bottles Still Cool After 8 Years_REV_2

On this last expedition, a really astonishing thing happened. I found 24 messages in bottles in two weeks. That’s a ridiculous number even to me, and I was TRYING to find them! The sheer amount of time, care, and forensic work that will go into opening, preserving, and investigating these messages boggles my mind. It’s surreal to have such a “backlog” of messages in bottles sitting around—but if I want to respect them and handle them with care, it’s going to take a while (months) to work with these.

Here’s the second message in a bottle I found on this most recent expedition. In this bottle is a business card plus what appears to have been a piece of paper, probably with a message on it.



This is an odd situation: I can read the name and contact info of the sender on the business card, but the other piece of paper is soaked and deteriorated to the point that I’m not sure any information is recoverable. So…do I smash it open or not?

Now, there was a time when I would have been driven mad by desire for the paper inside. No matter how wet and fragile it is (I used to think) I MUST HAVE IT!

But I’ve learned a lot over the years. Today, in my view, breaking a message in a bottle open is the last resort—like surgery. That may sound strange, but if you think about it, breaking the bottle is a severely traumatic experience for the bottle and the message. I have torn messages by breaking the bottle, for example. And even in the best case scenario, the message will be covered in glass shards.

So, I’m choosing to pursue this bottle without breaking it. That means I may never know what was written on the message itself, but the risk is too great, and the reward uncertain.

At the end of the day, what’s important for me is the connection made possible by the message, and in this case, I can explore that connection without breaking the bottle and putting the message at risk. It’s a Rolling Stones kinda thing–I can’t get what I want, but I can get what I need!

This bottle is a great example of a lesson I’ve been a long time in learning: Many times I have destroyed what I cherish out of a desire to hold it closer. Respect is the only antidote to the intoxication of desire.

Desire and Respect

Talking Trash and Treasure With BYU Radio

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had a blast stopping by the Morning Show on BYU Radio! Got to talk about a lot of bottles and connect the dots between messages in bottles and flotsam. Have a listen to this fun interview–it’ll help you procrastinate :-)

Message in a Bottle Hunter on BYU Radio

Sleuthing an MIB With the Salt Lake Tribune

July 7, 2014 § 4 Comments

The work I do with messages in bottles (MIBs) is often solitary work. Occasionally, the stars align and I have help with the work. This May, I had special visit from the Salt Lake Tribune who helped me track down the sender of a particularly elusive bottle. This one:

Andy Pelicano Bottle 2Andy Pelicano Bottle 1

This bottle had been troubling me for some time. I found it back in 2012, and even then, there was no visible writing on the paper. I thought I could see impressions left by a pen, but the waviness of the glass made it hard to be sure.

When the Salt Lake Tribune heard about my connecting with Clinton (yes Clinton!) and Gwen Bennett live on BBC Radio, we decided it would be fun to document the process of opening an MIB live for the paper.

When reporter Erin Alberty and photographer Melissa Majchrzak arrived, I gave them a tour of some of my MIBs that have survived and turned out well and others that were ravaged by the sea and sun. I wanted them to be prepared for best and worst case scenarios. Then, I picked out the above bottle, borrowed a laparoscopic surgery tool from my girlfriend, and got down to business.

I’m not going to recount the remaining details of that day because Erin Alberty did such a good job in the article she wrote on the experience called “Messages in Bottles are Treasure Hunts for Utah Man,” but I certainly hope you read it! They document the whole process from start to finish.

Here are some photos from that day that Melissa and the Tribune have been kind enough to let me reproduce here:


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak

Clint Buffington pulls out one of his messages in a bottle for the first time.

Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak


Photo Credit: Melissa Majchzak

I promise they aren’t paying me to tell you this next part–but I have to say it. Erin and Melissa are rare people. They understood the complexity of the whole MIB thing. They understood the excitement and magic of it, and they also understood that there is a dark side to this: for every message in a bottle I find, I find several tons of life-threatning, toxic trash, most of which is plastic. I wish that MIBs were the only things floating around in the ocean and washing up on shore, but that is far from the truth. Melissa and Erin got that, and documented it well.

By the way–if you are concerned about plastic trash in the sea, I recommend the books Plastic Ocean by Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and Flotsametrics, a book written by a world renowned oceanographer and a man I am proud and honored to call a friend named Dr. Curt Ebbesmeyer. He’s among the rare folks who understand both the magic and allure of messages in bottles as well as the fact that they are harbingers of a serious pollution problem.

Erin interviewed Curt for the article, included some tips from me on how to send an environmentally low-impact message in a bottle, and in general, did a great job of capturing the detective work involved with what I do. Many thanks to Melissa, Erin, and the Salt Lake Tribune.

In case you’ve missed the embedded links in the article above, you can check out the Salt Lake Tribune article (which even includes a little video!) here:

Message in Bottles are Treasure Hunts for Utah Man

Melissa Majchzak’s professional photography web page here (did I mention she’s the photographer for the Utah Jazz? Yeah, her photos are basketball cards!):

Melissa’s Photography

And you can follow super-reporter Erin Alberty on Twitter here:

Erin Alberty on Twitter

And one last thing! Many of you are beachcombers, and I think you’d really enjoy receiving Curt Ebbesmeyer’s newsletter called Beachcomber’s Alert! It’s a worldwide network of beachcombers (including you, me, etc.) who write in to Curt with stories and photos of interesting things they have found. Then Curt collects these stories, gives readers some scientific context for understanding their significance, and makes it all into an entertaining read along the way! You can sign up for it here: Beachcombers’ Alert!

Mystery Cameras

May 12, 2014 § 5 Comments

Well there I was, walking along a deserted beach, wondering about my place in the world—wondering what would come of all my messages in bottles and whether I’d get to do anything like a book or a movie with them before we drown ourselves in plastic trash—when a waterproof camera appeared on the beach!

Fuji Camera on Beach 2013
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Help Me Find Keith McComas and Kristy Suttle!

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 2009 my dad found a message in a bottle. Look at this thing! For My Waiter Bottle

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John E. Freeland Leaves His Card Part Three: Maggie Valley and the Butterfly Effect

January 7, 2014 § 4 Comments

After learning everything I learned in the last post, I knew I had to meet Phil in person. So, one day in August 2011, I loaded up the car and headed to Maggie Valley.

The night before I hit the road, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about everything I wanted to ask him and tell him, wondering whether we would really get along, and wondering–on the scale of crazy–just how crazy it was that I was about to walk into the home, the actual dwelling place, of a complete stranger… Is that, like, really really crazy? Or just a little crazy?

Crazy Scale

In any case, I went.

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