Land & Conservation

Message in a Bottle Contains a Shrimp Story

A couple finds a nearly sixty-year-old message washed ashore on Florida’s Marco Island

Photo: Courtesy of the Otto family

The bottle, along with the instructions inside.

After four years of marriage, Dave and Brandi Otto decided it was finally time for a honeymoon. While enjoying their time away on Marco Island, Florida, the Iowa couple took an after-dinner beach walk and came across an unlikely find: a real-life message in a bottle. “You could tell how aged it was when we found it,” Brandi says. “And I seriously thought, we have found treasure and we are going to be rich.”

Back in their hotel room, the couple broke open the bottle and discovered its story. As part of a study conducted from 1962 to 1963, the National Marine Fisheries Service (then the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries) released 7,863 bottles at stations along the Gulf Coast to better understand the role of surface water and currents in the movement of shrimp. Larval shrimp rely on currents to carry them to their estuary nursery grounds for a key phase of their life cycle.

photo: Courtesy of the Otto family
Though the message inside sustained some water damage, it was still legible.

After finding more information about the project online, the Ottos reached out to the lab in Galveston, Texas, that conducted the study. They received a reply from Farron Wallace, the laboratory director of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center. “Thank you so much for the information on your drift bottle find,” Wallace wrote. “It is difficult to say how many are left out there, and recoveries are extremely rare.” Researchers completed the study using the bottles that were recovered within thirty days of their release nearly sixty years ago, which only numbered 953. The rest, presumably, are still at large, though another couple discovered one in Texas last year.

photo: Courtesy of the Otto family
Brandi and Dave Otto in Florida.

For the Ottos, finding a message in a bottle has a personal significance. “My dad used to put messages in bottles and throw them all over the world,” Dave explains. When he traveled, he would take a bottle along, or send one with friends or family who had a trip planned. “His message would have a little bit about himself and ask where they found the bottle and what condition it was in.” Dave puts out bottles too, in keeping with his late father’s hobby. “When we found this bottle, we felt like it was a piece of Dave’s father,” Brandi says. “That is the coolest part of the story to us.” 

And though Brandi’s dreams of striking it rich didn’t exactly pan out, the contents of the bottle did offer fifty cents for bottle recoveries, if the finder could report the exact location and date of the find. The Ottos had their details straight: latitude 25.929544, longitude: -81.732103, July 10, 2020, some fifty-eight years after the study. So as Dave points out with a laugh, that should be fifty cents…plus the compounded interest.