Lying among the broken seashells and stretches of yellow sand, Abbie Graham found a grubby, mud-caked glass bottle.
The 9-year-old resident of Keaau, Hawaii, was visiting the state’s Paradise Park with her family in June. Her parents initially dismissed their daughter’s finding as trash, but the girl knew it was treasure.
Lo and behold, inside the weathered bottle, Graham found letters from a Japanese high school—4,000 miles away—sent over 37 years ago. The notes were amazingly intact for something that went to sea when Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president. Written in English, Spanish, and Japanese, the letters asked the finder to write back to the science club at Choshi high school in Chiba Prefecture just east of Tokyo.
The request was answered earlier this month, when Graham sent the letters back to the school, along with a drawing of her and her sister eating sushi. In an era of instant messaging, the old-fashioned sail mail has sparked delight on both sides of the northern Pacific Ocean.
“The students were delighted to get the letter back,” Jun Hayashi, vice principal of Choshi high school, told VICE World News. “Though the high schoolers at the time have since graduated, it’s nonetheless been fun for current students.”
A former member of the science club contacted by the school, Mayumi Kanda, now 54, said she was surprised to hear the bottle was found.
“It brought back a lot of nostalgic memories of when I was a high school student. I’m very thankful to the girl who picked up the bottle, to my old high school for organizing this project, and to everyone involved,” Kanda said during a press conference on Wednesday.
The discovery not just connected two people across time and space, but also completed an experiment, if rudimentary, about the movement of ocean currents.
Back in the 80s, the high schoolers of Choshi set adrift 750 bottles with the expectation that the Kuroshio, a Pacific version of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, would carry them north and east. For the next dozen years, 50 bottles were found in Japan and beyond, including the Philippines, China, and the U.S. West Coast.
But then, inexplicably, reports of finding the bottles stopped coming in.
“After 2002, the school hadn’t heard of any findings,” Hayashi said. The science club disbanded in 2007, and it took another 14 years—and a curious Hawaiian girl—for another bottle to be found and reported to the school.
Sending messages in a bottle is a practice as old as the ancient Greeks.
The first known correspondence of the sort was sent by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, one of Aristotle’s students, who was supposedly trying to prove that the Atlantic Ocean flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. Apparently, he didn’t get a letter back.
Since then, bottles have been set adrift by oceanographers trying to map sea currents, stranded people sending desperate S.O.S. messages, and those who like to engage in a bit of nostalgia.
The oldest known message in a bottle is 132 years old, found in 2019 on a Western Australian beach. The message, dated June 12, 1886, came from a German ship testing shipping routes by the German Naval Observatory, the BBC reported.
Although sending messages in a bottle has withstood the test of time, leaving correspondence adrift at sea has since been discouraged over environmental concerns—issues that also halted the Choshi high school’s science experiments.
Ocean conservationists have said throwing bottles into the sea adds to marine pollution, with glass taking years to break down. Bottle caps, too, can be hazardous to seabirds and fill their stomachs with plastic. Sometimes, one man’s treasure can be an animal’s trash.