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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/features/message bottle


Ship Logs

Message in a Bottle
Written by `Aulani Wilhelm and Mark Heckman, Education and Documentation Team Members

Bottle with message from Japan found on Laysan Island.Perhaps it was the way the sun hit the little glass bottle, or the container's resemblance to a Japanese glass fishing float (prized finds of the experienced beachcomber) that caught his eye. Or maybe it just happened to be located along the footpath that Jeremy Polloi (1) used to collect his limu (seaweed) specimens. Whatever it was, destiny chose that the little glass bottle, with the delicate handwritten note, would be found today.

Exactly fifteen years, four months and three days after it was placed in the ocean, Emi Komasu's note which she wrote in High School in Hiroshima, Japan, was found. Emi composed the message for part of a class excursion (2) where all of the students wrote a brief note, enclosed postage and encouraged the finder to write back. She wrote in both English and Japanese, clearly uncertain as to where the bottle would find itself.

The note in the bottle reads:
May 15, 1987
How do you do?
We're Showa High School students in Hiroshima. Now we're going to Tanegashima Island and Kagoshima on a school excursion. This is one of the bottles which all of the students are making float on the sea.
If you will read this letter and send your letter, we'll be very glad.
I'm looking forward to your letter.
Faithfully, Emi Komasu

How Jeremy found the bottle amidst the zillions of scattered glass and plastic debris strewn across the entire length of the island's sandy shoreline, we'll never understand. There were nearly twenty of us on island that day, each traversing the same stretch of beach (not to mention the two Fish and Wildlife Service staff permanently stationed there for months at a time). There was nothing showy about the glass bottle, nothing that would make it stand out from all of the rest. But somehow, the bottle spoke to Jeremy and encouraged him to pick it up.

It is likely because the little bottle knew that Jeremy, a native of the island of Ngiwal in Palau (in Micronesia), would take the significance of the find to heart and write back, completing the bottle's journey.

As a fellow Pacific islander, Jeremy understands family, distance and connections. Jeremy did not go to college immediately after High School. He took care of family obligations; made sure his younger brother finished high school, and then considered where to go. His oldest brother had returned to Palau to take care of the family, while his middle brother had just completed a year of college in Hawai`i. It seemed to Jeremy that Hawai`i was a good choice for the three younger brothers. It is a good school, they could save on money, and they could get home whenever possible - family, responsibility, care, togetherness. Of course Jeremy will write back.

Emi was in High School in Hiroshima when she wrote the letter. For most of us, Hiroshima is still a remembrance of times of war and strife, a time when much of the human race was doing it's very worst to get along, not it's best. Today, Hiroshima is a big city. Yuko Stender, one of the crew member's aboard grew up in Japan and noted that Emi probably went to a fairly large high school, worked hard and was not so different from high school students today.

We wonder of her hopes and dreams. She is in her 30's now, perhaps with a family or career. A message she sent over 15 years ago has now completed the first leg of its trek, 3,400 miles at a minimum (3). But how long it has been drifting and how long beached we will never know. It has had time to travel many thousands of miles more. Perhaps it does not matter; perhaps the lesson here is simple. Although the Pacific Ocean is massive, all nations and islands within her reach are connected.

References: Jeremy Polloi, Expedition biologist, Yuko Stender, Rapture crewmember, Educator/Biologist, Jokiel, Paul L. 1990. "Long-distance Dispersal by Rafting: Reemergence of an Old Hypothesis". Endeavour. New Series. Volume 14, No. 2, 66 - 73. Pergammon Press. Great Britain, Sheltima, Rudolf S. 1986. "Long-Distance Dispersal by Planktonic Larvae of Shoal-water Benthic Invertebrates Among Central Pacific Islands". Bulletin of Marine Science 39:241-256.

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(1) Jeremy Polloi has a BA in Biology from the University of Hawai`i - Hilo and is part of the Intertidal/ Shallow Reef REA group. His specialty is algae, but he has a broad background in biology and assists his team leader, Larry Basch with a variety of collecting and documentation duties.


(2) Crewmember and Japanese National, Yuko Stender, notes that a special senior year trip is common for Japanese High Schools. The trip is a reward for the hard work of the students and incorporates educational elements. Emi's trip included time in the Kagoshima district, famous for its active volcanoes.

Such High School trips typically include a history component. Tanegashima is famous in Japan for being the port through which guns were first imported, resulting in a variety of cultural and societal changes. The stop at Tanegashima Island obviously also focused on marine biology as well as providing time for the students to relax and enjoy themselves.


(3) Drift bottle experiments have been used to determine current rates in the ocean. Most tropical marine fish and invertebrates have a planktonic stage of their life in which they drift with the currents to colonize new areas. The planktonic stage is typically limited to days, a few weeks, or for a very few, months before settlement is required.

Most ocean currents can only move a larval animal a few hundred kilometers before competence (survival) of the larvae is limited (Jokiel, P., 1990). But, surface drift rates of up to 20 - 25 km/ day have been noted for at least some Pacific Ocean currents (Sheltima, R., 1986). At this rate, Emi's bottle could have made it to Laysan in less than a year. In reality, most surface currents are probably not that fast and it is highly unlikely that the bottle moved in even remotely a straight line. There are certainly no direct currents from Japan to Laysan. The bottle may have spent a considerable about of time in gyres, on other beaches, or just traversing the open ocean to the north, south, east or west before ending up on Laysan Island. It may have spent years at sea. If you have time, take a look in a text book for the North Pacific currents. Try and find the Island of Tanegashima on a map and then Laysan Island. It is always interesting to speculate the path such a bottle might have taken.


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