The history of messages in bottles is a fairly sketchy one. It is often said that the first message was sent by Greek philosopher Theophrastus in order to prove that the Mediterranean was fed by the Atlantic, and that in Elizabethan England, anyone other than the official ‘Uncorker of Ocean Bottles’ could face the death penalty should they open a bottle. However, there is little support for either factoid.
The Elizabethan post is mentioned in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, while its ubiquity on the internet appears to have come from a Reader’s Digest book of facts.
‘Flotsam’ is wreckage from a ship found floating on the surface of the sea while ‘jetsam’ is goods deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) by a ship in peril. A third category, ‘lagan’, is goods lying on the bottom of the sea or marked by a buoy with the intention of recovery, while ‘derelict’ completes the set: this is sunken cargo that has been abandoned at sea without any hope of recovery.
These four categories make up what the 1995 Merchant Shipping Act calls a wreck. If you find anything at sea, you must report it to a designated ‘Receiver of the Wreck’ who works within the Coastguard Agency. The receiver will try to find the owner who might offer a reward. Unclaimed wreckage belongs to the Crown, though in most cases the finder will be allowed to keep the items as a salvage award. If the item is more than 100 years old, it becomes ‘historic wreck’ and is usually offered to museums close to the site of the wreck. Should you find something on the beach and not follow the correct procedures you can be fined up to £2,500, waive your right to a salvage reward, and have to pay the owner twice the value of the goods.
Treasure found on land is governed by the Treasure Act of 1997; you must report it to your local police station within 14 days. From there it will be passed onto the coroner. The coroner decides what to do, but you’ll probably get a reward if a museum wants it, or be allowed to keep it if not.
Flotsam and Jetsam were a British musical comedy act of the 1920s and 1930s.
Ocean flotsam can provide shelter for juvenile fish which use it to hide from sea birds.
In 1992 29,000 plastic bath toys (mainly yellow ducks but also beavers, turtles, and frogs) were dropped into the Pacific when a container ship lost some of its cargo in heavy seas. Since then, they have followed a path, determined by the Earth’s tides, and one was washed up in Devon in 2007. If you find one and send it in to the manufacturers they’ll supposedly pay you $100 for it.
The floating toys were of particular interest to oceanographers. Their path was predicted with incredible accuracy by Dr Curtis Ebbsmeyer – he even predicted that they’d be caught in Arctic ice for five to six years, and that it would carry them from the Pacific to the Atlantic, where they would thaw out and continue on their journey.
‘Mermaids’ tears’ are small plastic pellets of waste that wash up on beaches and look like little plastic fish eggs.
The Cornish word for flotsam, jetsam and the like is ‘scummow’.