Ever wondered what happens when a message in a bottle is found? A file held at our Wellington archive shows how the Marine Department investigated these messages in the first half of the twentieth century.

This file comes from the Inwards Letters and Registered Files record group of the Marine Department. It holds nearly twenty written messages and reports of messages discovered in bottles. These messages were found between 1913 and 1947 in a wide variety of locations such as Lyttelton Harbour, Cape Campbell, Waituna Lagoon, Foxton Beach, as well as from overseas.

The Department investigated each letter to determine its authenticity in case they were genuine pleas for help. They rarely were.

The main source of interest of these notes was in the potential information about ocean currents that could be derived from them. International marine bodies sometimes forwarded these letters to the NZ Marine Department to share such information. The Department’s investigations are evident in the correspondence that accompanies each letter.

1935, found at Wanganui River
1935, found at Wanganui River
Reference: M1 Box 647 6/2/67 1 R19981551

The Customs Department received this message after it was discovered on the South Beach near the entrance to the Wanganui River. It was found in a ‘tightly corked curry powder bottle’ with no label. Customs then forwarded it to the Marine Department. The message was accompanied with the suggestion that ‘as far as can be ascertained, there are no persons missing from whom the message is likely to have emanated’, and was therefore ‘rather like a schoolboy hoax’.

1937, found at Great Barrier Islands
1937, found at Great Barrier Islands
Reference: M1 Box 647 6/2/67 1 R19981551

In January 1937 Mrs Emtage found a note in a bottle at Great Barrier Island. The note stated that its writers were shipwrecked near Fiji and ‘clinging to the main with only one apple between six of us’.

Curious to know where it came from, she sent it to the Marine Department. Upon examination, the Acting Superintendent of Mercantile Marine concluded that:

‘I do not think it is genuine – the paper is barely discoloured, the pencil writing is not faded at all, the phrasing is not that of people in dire distress, and with the prevailing winds and currents between Fiji and New Zealand, I do not think it is possible that this message could have left the vicinity of Fiji and have been cast up on Great Barrier Island’.

1937, unknown location
1937, unknown location
Reference: M1 Box 647 6/2/67 1 R19981551

The US Navy Hydrographic Office sent this letter, dated 1920, to the NZ Marine Department in June 1937 to determine its authenticity. The location of the discovery of the letter is unrecorded. The letter states that the writers were sailing from Invercargill to Batavia, Java (near present day Jakarta, Indonesia) when the vessel was wrecked. However, after the Marine Department made several inquiries around Invercargill about the boat and passengers, they declared it hoax.

1938, found at Chatham Islands
1938, found at Chatham Islands
Reference: M1 Box 647 6/2/67 1 R19981551

In January 1938, 13 year old Dave Fenton dropped this message from aboard the ‘Muritai’ near Pencarrow Head, Wellington. By July the bottle had landed on Kekerone Beach in the Chatham Islands, where Mr Te Rua Herata of Te Roto discovered it. Mr Herata posted a friendly letter of reply to Dave stating where he had found the bottle, and enclosed the original message.

Dave’s father sent this correspondence to the Marine Department, who received it gratefully. The Department stated that the information from the journey of the bottle was of ‘considerable interest (adding) to the Department’s knowledge of currents around the coast’.