Message in a bottle delivered to a Martha’s Vineyard beachcomber

On a January walk, Justin LaVigne made an interesting find: a bottle with a message dated Sept. 19, 1959.

Justin LaVigne of Edgartown was walking his Great Dane when he discovered the bottle with a note inside of it. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Justin LaVigne of Edgartown has discovered that the joys of beachcombing are many and varied, even in winter. His most recent find will help scientists to understand the vagaries of ocean currents.

“I look for things to motivate me to get outside. Luckily, I have dogs,” said Mr. LaVigne, who owns a seasonal landscaping business. His Great Dane and other family dogs require their exercise, and that gets Mr. LaVigne out of the house every day in winter, he told The Times recently.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve found on the beach, including a dead fisher cat, an animal that is not native to the Island — I have no idea how it got here,” he said.

Mr. LaVigne also finds a lot of messages in bottles. Apologies to Nicholas Sparks, but Mr. LaVigne reports that most of the waterborne communications he finds — two or three a year — are recent and not particularly interesting. On Jan. 20, Mr. LaVigne was walking along Long Point Beach in West Tisbury, along the Island’s south shore, when he spotted a bottle lying next to a clump of seagrass.

He picked up the corked bottle, and saw a faded but readable message through the clear glass. Despite instructions provided on how to break the bottle, Mr. LaVigne opted to uncork it.

“I really had to work to open it,” he said. “I wanted to keep the bottle intact.” He decided to use a corkscrew and chopsticks rather than a hammer. His strategy was successful.

The message inside the bottle, dated Sept. 19, 1959, requested that the finder return the card inside to the “Coast and Geodetic Survey,” known now as part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Woods Hole.

He contacted NEFSC, and found a welcome ear in Shelley Dawicki, NOAA public affairs specialist and an enthusiastic marine culture-keeper. Ms. Dawicki reported Mr. LaVigne’s find on the NEFSC web site.

It turns out the bottle was one of several flights of bottles released as part of an ocean-current analysis program, before the wizardry of digital electronics supplanted the natural methodology. And it may be the last one.

“We had another returned in 2013, but the identification markings indicate this may be the last in that flight,” Ms. Dawicki told The Times. “Several flights were released in that period, off Cape Cod Light; some, including this bottle, 60 miles from the Island. This is the oldest bottle of the group, and the oldest of this type found in the country.” Mr. LaVigne will keep the bottle he found at Long Point. If he changes his mind, Ms. Dawicki has promised a place of honor for the long-lost bottle in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Exhibit reserved for oceangoing artifacts.

This bottle has special meaning for Mr. LaVigne. “This bottle, for example, was probably buried for five or six decades at Long Point,” he said. “I reflect on that. My parents used to vacation, decades ago, on that spot in Long Point. They, and so many of my friends and acquaintances, probably walked over it countless times.”

Mr. LaVigne feels a strong sense of connection to the history of his finds. “It’s a very exciting feeling,” he said. “Sometimes I kick myself because I get so excited that I pick it up. I really should take a picture of it first, just as it was on the beach.

“I do get a sense of who made an arrowhead or put a bottle in the water,” he said.

His beach finds, including arrowheads, spear points and other Native American objects, bring the continuum of Island history to life for him.

“Some of the arrowheads and spear points are thousands of years old. We usually think of these things as being several hundred years old, but I’ve had some of them dated, and one arrowhead I found on Chappaquiddick is thought to be 11,000 years old, probably when Chappy was still connected with Nantucket,” he said in a reverential voice.

Not the first time

As unusual as Mr. LaVigne’s find was, it was not that unusual. On Dec. 22, 2013, Keith Moreis was walking on Long Point Reservation in West Tisbury when he found a glass bottle resting in the sand next to some seagrass, according to a NOAA press release. After brushing aside the sand, he was surprised to see that the bottle was intact.

Inside the bottle, a pink sheet printed with the words “Break This Bottle” caught his attention. He took the bottle home.

Not wanting to break the bottle, Mr. Moreis used a wire to pull out the pink sheet and a postcard with printing on both sides. One side of the postcard had an address; the other side had instructions to the finder and some stamped and handwritten information.

The postcard had both stamped and handwritten information on the top: U.S.C.&G.S. HYDROGRAPHER was stamped on the left corner, and Sep. 19, 1959, on the right corner, with the day handwritten. Exact details about its release could not be located, but Ms. Dawicki said it was remarkable that the bottle survived for close to 50 years.

Archive documents revealed that in September and October of 1959 the U.S.C.&G.S. ship Hydrographer conducted environmental studies in three areas off the New England coast: 16 miles northeast of Cape Cod Light, just south of Nomans Land, and 36 miles south of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard.

As of Feb. 8, 1960, only two drift-bottle cards had been returned from the area 36 miles south of Gay Head (now known as Aquinnah), but nearly 60 percent from the area just south of Nomans Land. Approximately 5 percent of bottle-card returns came from the area 16 miles northeast of Cape Cod Light, now known as Highland Light, in Truro.

Records as of March 1960 indicate that four of the six bottles numbered 279B released south of Nomans Land were recovered within two months of their Sept. 19, 1959, release: one after 2 days, another after 4 days, and a third after 7 days. All three were found on Martha’s Vineyard. The fourth was found after 55 days on Nantucket.

The December 2013 bottle is one of the last two bottles released in that group. Like the others, it was recovered just miles away from where it began its journey, but in this case more than 54 years later.

“Finding the bottle was exciting,” said Mr. Moreis. “Learning more about it and its history has been a rewarding experience, to say the least. I never expected to find something like this, but then again, you never know what you will find on the beach.”