‘Missing you would be an understatement’

Snorkeler finds poignant message in a bottle during Oak Bluffs dive.

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When Mike Watts visited the Vineyard last summer, he did not expect a casual free dive to yield anything out of the ordinary. Yet what he would uncover deep below the Oak Bluffs pier would touch his heart and prompt him to return on a mission. 

Watts, a Weymouth firefighter, has been a licensed scuba diver and an avid snorkeler for more than 30 years. He enjoys the thrill of diving deep where the casual swimmer does not venture. In those depths, he routinely picks up an array of objects lost by either other swimmers or clumsy passersby on bridges, piers, or jetties. (Some findings, like branded sunglasses or necklaces, are more precious than others.)

One summer day in late July, while Watts and his family were vacationing in Falmouth, they decided to cross the Vineyard Sound for a day trip on the Island. As the ferry arrived in Oak Bluffs, Watts saw some children jumping off the pier by the terminal, and figured the spot was propitious for some beautiful and adventurous summer snorkeling. 

Not long after setting foot on land, Watts was back at sea, this time deep under the surface, exploring the vibrant coastline waters. Quickly he found some change and an unremarkable bracelet. Soon he started chasing some fish that brought him deeper under the pier. Then out of the corner of his eye, something glistening seized his attention. “Somewhere along that time I see something really shiny,” Watts said. “I was probably in about 40something feet of water. It was pretty deep. And I go ahead and grab it: it was a glass heart.” 

Like many other good and unexpected events, a mix of natural circumstances enabled this fortuitous discovery. “If I had gone an hour earlier or an hour later, I probably would have never seen it,” Watts explained. “But the way the sun shined [on the bottle], it caught my eye. It was worth taking a couple of deep dives trying to grab it because, as I said, it was pretty deep. It was just the top showing up through the sun.”

Upon securing and safely storing away the object that so sharply captured his attention, Watts continued to snorkel before going on to spend a pleasant afternoon on the Island. He didn’t pay any further attention to his find until later that evening, after returning to his hotel in Falmouth. That is when he noticed something peculiar about the bottle.

The glass heart was in fact a cork-sealed bottle, about 4 inches in both height and width. But despite the singularity of the bottle, even more unusual were its contents: inside, folded snugly amid colorful sea glass and tiny beadlike pebbles, was a tiny piece of paper. 

“We thought: ‘Oh my gosh! That is super-cool; what the heck is that all about?’” Watts said. The same night, he opened the bottle up and, with tweezers, carefully peeled open layer after layer of what would soon be evident to be a letter. Notwithstanding the cork, water had seeped into the heart, soaking the note and rendering it impossible to read. Yet after Watt’s surgical attention and a long night of air-drying, the letter was legible once again. 

The letter, which now had an upper portion torn off and its edges cracked, seemed to be the words of a child — or an adult writing on the child’s behalf — bemoaning their mother’s absence (“Missing you would be an understatement”) and expressing a deep love for her (“I love you to the moon and back”). 

After the excitement of the discovery came the emotions of the letter. Watts, who had lost a young daughter to a heart defect, explained how the letter particularly touched him. “It just made me feel really, really sad that somebody lost someone they loved that much and that they would go through the trouble and the time to put it in there and make it so nice and then to put it out.”

The passionate snorkeler thought he had simply found a neat underwater treasure, different from his usual findings. He didn’t expect a deeply personal message, not to mention a letter to a lost parent, to be in the bottle. 

Quickly, Watts felt that he had displaced something that shouldn’t have been moved. This intuition was confirmed by his friends, as well as his pastor.

“I spoke to my pastor at my church and I was like, ‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ and he said ‘You should just take that back. Somebody wanted it there, and that is probably where it belongs,’” Watts told the Times. 

No one can know if the bottle was thrown by that pier in Oak Bluffs, or if it traveled from farther away. “Now, did it drift and move around, miles and miles and miles? Was it out at sea and was it just getting closer to the shore?” Watts said. “I have really no idea where it came from or where it originated. It could have come from anywhere.” Regardless, it became obvious to the Weymouth firefighter that returning the bottle to the sea was the right thing to do, and placing it where it was found, despite the inevitable uncertainty about its true origins, made the most sense. 

Watts is already planning to seal the bottle up again, this time in a more durably waterproof manner. Then, with the newly impermeable bottle in hand, he wants to return to the Vineyard next summer, dive back under the pier in Oak Bluffs, and place the bottle where he found it.

“I would want to get down there and really dig it down deep and stick it in there,” Watts said. With such firm anchoring, Watts hopes the bottle won’t easily be recovered by someone else, who, unlike him, maybe won’t go through the trouble to return it to where it belongs.