This article was originally published on VICE Australia.
You'd imagine finding a message in a bottle would be a romantic experience. You'd be walking along a beach and notice something bobbing in the sea. Then you'd get closer and realise it's an antique bottle containing a direction to treasure. Or a love letter. Or a plea for help. Or maybe it's just some crap written by two guys named Dan "off our nuts on cocaine." Because the reality is there's a lot of bottles bobbing in the sea.
Actually, there are so many bottles bobbing around the sea that one man named Clint Buffington has managed to find 82 of them. That's even though he lives in land-locked Salt Lake City. Clint describes himself as a "message in a bottle hunter" and runs his own website charting his finds. We got Clint on the phone to hear what he's learned about finding bottles, finding people, and despairing about trash.
VICE: You've found a lot of messages in bottles. How did you first get into finding them?
Clint Buffington: Well, my dad found a message in a bottle about a year before I found my first one. That blew my mind. I thought, if he can do it, I can too! I found my first message in a bottle in 2007. I must have walked past several thousand bottles that day—I had almost zoned out when something caught my eye: a blue bottle lying right on the sand, like it had just washed up. There was something inside. I stumbled over to the bottle and held it up, examining the contents: bright orange paper tied with a piece of string. Then wrapped around the message inside were two US dollars. That bottle sparked something in me that led to finding more messages. It was like that blew open a door to a strange new world. One where messages in bottles are in reach, where I can make friends by finding them, where I can learn the stories behind each one. Also a world with fewer strangers, more friendship and more goodwill. That's the world I want to live in. Now I'm hooked for life!
I get that, but how do you get hooked on something you have no control over? Like, how you find the bottles?
I find them by walking! I get to the beach and I just start walking! Everyone wants to know if there's some magical place where they wash up by the thousands, but I don't think so. They just seem to wash up everywhere, even on populated beaches.
Do you have a favourite message in a bottle story?
It's hard to pick my favourite story. I guess one of my favourite bottles I have found included a couple whose 1st anniversary message in a bottle I found. They had written a note, dated and signed it, rolled it up and put some cake in the bottle before throwing it into the ocean. I found it two years later. We've gotten together three times since and I'm even inviting them to my wedding this summer.
That's great! What are some of the weirder or more mysterious messages?
I once found a message in a bottle on a remote island of the Caribbean. I could tell that this note was old, because it was an older variety of glass Coke bottle. The message, which was only slightly legible, read "Return to 419 Ocean Boulevard and receive a reward of $150 from Tina, Owner of the Beachcomber." I had to do a lot of detective work—there was a 419 Ocean Boulevard in Florida, North Carolina, Washington State, California and more places. Eventually I found the owner of the Beachcomber Motel, which I learned was in Hampton after enlisting the help of a journalist who lived in that area. Tina and her husband Paul were its original owners, now deceased and so I was put in touch with their daughter Paula. Paula believes her Dad wrote the note as a joke. Her parents were very frugal. She thinks her Dad just wanted to see the look on Tina's face when some kid came in demanding $150. Tina would have flipped, Paula said.
What was it like to give the letter to Paula?
Well, when we met in 2016, she'd lost both parents long ago, but only recently lost the motel. Both losses really hurt, I think. She actually told me that receiving the note felt like getting a bit of both back. She said that she felt revived of a lot of happy memories.
I guess what she was saying is that to her, the bottle wasn't just a bottle. It held her parents' love, their dream of running the motel that eventually became Paula's. When I was there, Paul and her kids and family were passing around the message and you could nearly feel a kind of presence in the room. I felt like the motel was regarded almost like a family member. Paula also told me that she felt like the message in a bottle showed her Dad's playful side, which she didn't see a whole lot, so it was like getting to see him in a new light.
What is the part of all this that you find so addictive?
Finding bottles gives me hope. Hope that total strangers can get along if given that chance. What I have learned from meeting all kinds of people from different countries and cultures through finding messages in bottles is simply this: We all have more in common than we think. On one level, it's just simply fun to go meet folks who have sent messages in bottles. It's an incredible adventure. But on top of that, it's like getting an education in culture and history. The more people I meet through messages in bottles, the more I believe that most people are basically good, kind and friendly.
That photo we've put in above is of a message in a bottle, but it's also of a lot of trash. Have you learned a lot about pollution doing this?
Yeah, the sheer volume of plastic trash on our beaches and in our seas is overwhelming and a little scary. I wish everyone on earth could find a message in a bottle so that they could experience the sense of wonder, but also so it would inspire more people to remove trash from the beach. I guess that doesn't sound glamorous but it's actually pretty fun to haul home junk and then take a look at what you've found. You'll never know otherwise.
Follow Sam on Twitter