The Marine Biological Association

Promoting marine scientific excellence and representing the marine biological community since 1884

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MBA sent what is probably oldest message in a bottle ever found!

Mr Bidder’s Bottom Bottles

George Parker Bidder. Image: MBA archive.

George Parker Bidder. Image: MBA archive.

A postcard returned to the Marine Biological Association in April may be the oldest message in a bottle ever found.

The bottle was released into the North Sea between 1904 and 1906 as part of research carried out by George Parker Bidder. G. P. Bidder was MBA President from 1939-1945 and was remembered for his scientific research and also the large financial contributions he made to the Association.

G. P. Bidder contributed to knowledge on the hydraulics of sponges, and was the inventor of the bottom-trailer. Bidder’s ‘bottom bottles’ (as he calls them in his notes) were a powerful tool for the study of bottom water movement. A bottom-trailer is a bottle adjusted to trail a wire so as to float with the current two feet above the sea bed, and to be caught in trawl nets. Bidder released a total of 1020 bottles between 1904 and 1906 and he reported that his bottles were trawled up by the fishermen at the rate of 55% per annum. Some bottles were never returned, assumed to be lost in the open ocean forever. However, in April this year, over 100 years on, a bottle was found washed up on the shore at Amrum island, Germany and the enclosed postcard was returned to the MBA.

Bidder’s experiment revealed a number of interesting results, one being that it confirmed the view of naturalists who supposed that bottom feeders tend to move against the current. He concluded that the main drift in all his series of bottle releases seemed to be in the opposite direction to the migration of plaice at the same time of year. Moreover, Bidder expressed the opinion that the percentage of bottles recovered by the trawls did not differ from the percentage of plaice in the same area caught by the trawl at the same time. This meant that Bidder could use the bottles as an instrument for assessing the intensity of trawling because they cannot migrate.

One of Bidder's bottles used to elucidate ocean currents. Image: MBA archive.

One of Bidder’s bottles used to elucidate ocean currents. Image: MBA archive.

What was probably his most significant finding from his experiments was that many of his bottom-trailers got cast on the English shore, whereas surface bottles would, for the most part go across the North Sea. He deduced, regarding the bottom flow, ‘that the isochrones of the stream-front were shaped on the shoreline; and such a formation of the bottom current suggested the creeping-in of heavy water’.

Bidder’s postcards offered one shilling as a reward for returning the postcard. The MBA has sent an old English shilling to the finder!