The Message Bottle Project

by Mark Lukach

In Holling C. Holling’s award-winning children’s book Paddle To The Sea, an Indian boy wishes he could make the journey from the Great Lakes out to the Atlantic Ocean. Unable to go himself, he instead carves a figurine into a 12-inch wooden canoe, and sends it on its way. The book follows the canoe’s enchanting voyage to the sea.

Jay Little read the story when he was a boy, and it captured his imagination long into adulthood. When he walked his local beaches in Marin County in Northern California, he noticed how much more trash seemed to wash ashore with each year. He had always considered getting into sculpture, and an idea was born: The Message Bottle Project.

Jay Little and the Plastiki Message Bottle

The concept is as ancient as it is simple: put a message in a bottle, and cast it out to sea. But there’s an enlightened twist.

Jay became personally interested in the issue of ocean pollution, and wanted to use his talents as an artist to imaginatively raise awareness to other ocean-lovers and call to action for healthier oceans. Art, which Jay calls “a language in itself,” is a “wonderful vehicle to capture someone’s attention, especially the attention of children.” And so he decorated recycled bottles, wrote a message in them, and has thrown them into the ocean.

His bottles, which are made of glass rather than plastic like most ocean garbage, are emblazoned with a map of the world’s ocean currents. The message explains the project to the lucky discoverer:

My goal is to draw attention to the current environmental deterioration of the oceans and inspire people to take action.

Jay asks in his letter that the recipient of the bottle find something nearby at the beach, and send it back to him, so that he can incorporate their found object into a collaborative sculpture. He also asks that the recipient draw a map of the local area so he can learn more about their home. “The symbolism of two strangers coming together to make art about the ocean is at the heart of the project,” Jay explained in an interview.

In 1994, Jay hopped on a research boat heading for the Farallon Islands and threw his first 24 bottles overboard . He has been doing it every since. His plan is to release 300 bottles, and he has released about 235 over the last 14 years.

Of those 235, 22 have been discovered.. The bottles are typically given to research vessels and have been dropped in all of the seven major oceans. The discoveries have happened all over the world, and have been found in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Japan, New Guinea, Vanuatu, Nova Scotia, Kauai, Midway Island, Oeno island in the Pitcairns, Murilo Atoll in Micronesia, Italy’s island of Elbe, California, Egypt and Australia.

The first bottle to be found was in Japan in 1995, and its reception exceed what Jay had hoped for. Chiroko Yasue from Yanotsu, Shimane found the bottle on February 5, and sent back to Jay two local roof tiles, a dish, and small flowers, along with a letter. As one of Jay’s friends translated from her Japanese letter:

“…Each individual needs to take the effort to realize that the earth’s life span will decrease if we don’t make an effort. Since I have received your message I am going to try to make more of an effort, as much as I can, to keep an eye on what is around us, even if it makes just a little difference. I want to try to make the world beautiful.”

Not all of the bottles have had such poignant discoveries. In fact, the vast majority have not yet been found, nor will they ever. Jay has realized that the creation and release of the bottles are as important to the process of raising awareness as their discovery. He paired with the Marin Country Day School in recent years as a artist-in-resident, and his students helped supply ocean-inspired artwork for an additional crop of bottles. One of the bottles was given to the Plastiki, a highly-publicized boat made entirely of recycled plastic. Through the generosity of a research grant, the bottle was fitted with a satellite tracking device. The Plastiki Bottle was dropped on April 24, 2010 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is still afloat….but for the first time in the project’s 16 year history, it is actively being monitored. Jay gets the bottle’s coordinates several times a day and updates an interactive Google map, hosted at The Plastiki’s website, with its coordinates.

A screen shot of the Google Map documenting the Plastiki Bottle’s journey.

“The Plastiki Bottle has changed the process fundamentally,” Jay said. “On one hand, without the tagging, the bottle’s voyages were a wild fantasy. When one is found, you get to imagined how it got there. With this bottle, it’s actually more nerve-wracking. I see where it’s going and I worry about the battery life of the tracker, and if it’s going to get stuck in a gyre somewhere (it did, for about 5 weeks). But I end up learning about the journey as it’s happening. I research the islands that the bottle passes by and learn about the environmental issues that these places are confronting. And since it’s a public map, other viewers can learn as well.”

The most sensational story, by far, was the 8 year voyage of one of Jay’s bottles that was dropped in the South Pacific. It drifted west toward Australia, but was actually discovered on the West coast of Australia. As many of Jay’s oceanographer friends have speculated, the bottle most have drifted towards Australia’s east coast to be re-routed back across the South Pacific by counter-currents, then the South Atlantic, and then even the South Indian Ocean before finally landing in Western Australia. It almost got around the whole world.

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The Message Bottle Project started with an environmentally conscious artist, and has grown to include students throughout the world, notable research vessels, and countless enthusiastic supporters. There are few things more romantic than a message in a bottle, and Jay has masterfully captured that charming energy with his project. After speaking with Jay, I found myself wanting to find one of his bottles. They are beautiful and enigmatic, and they represent to me an international desire to love and protect our oceans that transcends borders. Best of all, they remind us of the wonder and awe of the sea.

There are some inherent paradoxes in his work. He drops trash, albeit beautiful, insightful trash, into the ocean to raise awareness about trash. And for the Plastiki Bottle, he has used advanced technology to spread a message about the collateral damage of technology on our oceans. But the best-conceived art projects tackle paradox head-on, and Jay has not flinched in his stand. He has cleaned local beaches countless times and has picked up more than enough trash to account for the bottles he has discarded. And while he admits that his project was conceived “to be almost anti-technology,” the data available from the satellite tracking has allowed the spread of his project’s influence to further grow.

I’ll end with the words of the artist himself: “The final phase of the anticipated project, of course, only signals the beginning of the most exciting part of the project, the unanticipated future. If history serves as a good guide then future stories of heartfelt connection and wonder are drifting at the edge of imagination.”

All images for this post were provided by Jay Little. He is working to build a website dedicated entirely to the Message Bottle Project, but a current alternative to learn more about his project and to see more pictures is to go to The Plastiki’s coverage of their Message Bottle.

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