The Drift Bottle Project

Drift bottles have long been used as an inexpensive (and fun) way to study ocean surface currents. A very simple piece of scientific equipment, a drift bottle is an empty glass bottle with a watertight lid and a note inside it explaining how to make contact with the research project. Project participants, throw these bottles over the side of ocean-going ships, and note the 'drop' location of each bottle; when a bottle is found and reported to the project, location information is added to a database for analysis.

The IOS Drift Bottle Project began in 2000 as a contribution to the RCMP's St. Roch II Millennium Project, when bottles were dropped along the west coast of Canada, around Alaska, and through the Canadian Arctic. Over the past few years, the project has dropped additional bottles in the Arctic, as well as south along the west coast of North America from Victoria to the Panama Canal, and north from the Panama Canal to the Bahamas.

"It is incredible to think that a single bottle managed to accomplish in one try [traversing the Northwest Passage] what so many explorers were unable to do."

Drifters Through the Ages

Almost everyone has heard the song Message in a Bottle, by The Police, but drift bottles are more than just musical inspiration. Over the centuries they have been used as a means of tracking ocean currents, sending messages requesting help or transmitting information, and as advertising.

The first recorded case of someone throwing a drift bottle (or at least a sealed cask) was the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, in the year 310BC. He was trying to show that the Mediterranean was created by waters from the Atlantic. Apparently he received no responses, but that did not discourage later attempts by others. In the 1950s, Guinness dropped more than 200,000 beer bottles with messages in them in the Atlantic Ocean.


The Drift Bottle Project is based out of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. Eddy Carmack, who had read about some of the amazing journeys drift bottles had made, thought that with a little planning, drift bottles could be harnessed for scientific purposes. This study was motivated by the successes of Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer who has greatly advanced the science of ocean drifting objects. Julie Lobb and Peter van Hardenberg have both helped with collecting the data, and many volunteers have aided with putting individual messages into the bottles.

We would like to thank our bottle droppers for their assistance, including the crews of the RCMP vessel St Roch II, Canadian icebreakers (MV Simon Fraser, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and CCGS Louis St. Laurent), the crew aboard the Sedna IV, and Students On Ice (on board the Akademik Ioffe).

Finally, thank you to everyone who has reported a find.

Recovery Locations

Recovery Locations

Drift bottles picked up at recovery locations contain information about how far they have travelled.

Ocean Currents

Each bottle report returned to the Drift Bottle Project helps to strengthen our understanding of ocean currents.

Transit Lines

Transit Lines

By calculating maximum travel time and minimum travel distance, scientists create drift bottle transit lines.

The Study of Flow

The Northern Drift Hypothesis

The Northern Drift Hypothesis

This figure shows how we expect drift bottles to travel.

For centuries, scientists have theorized about how drift bottles circulate through ocean currents.

Only one in every twenty-five bottles dropped is found. Some sink or leak enough to make the note inside illegible, and others undoubtedly wash up where nobody ever visits, or end up buried in sand. The unfound bottles eventually break down, and become part of the marine environment.

The real story is with the recovered bottles. A bottle recovery is only useful if it includes information about where the bottle was found and what the "drop number" is. That number is checked against a list of drop locations stored in a computer system at IOS to find out how far it travelled.

Some bottles have journeyed many thousands of miles, over distances as far as from the Arctic Ocean to the Carribean. These results show that drift bottles travel approximately 5-10 kilometers a day. Because some bottles sit on the beach for long periods or take unexpected routes, only maximum travel time and minimum travel distance can be calculated.

This information is important, because allows oceanographers to verify the theories of ocean circulation. Each bottle that turns up along the expected 'ocean highways' helps to strengthen the existing theories. So far, no bottles have turned up outside of the expected path, however, a bottle appearing to have followed an unusual current pattern could lead to new research and new theories.

How the world's oceans circulate is very important even for people living far from the coast. When circulation patterns change new kinds of water can arrive at the coast and related changes in temperature can lead to storms, droughts, or even flooding thousands of kilometers away. Examples of this may be found in the "El Nino" effect which changed ocean currents and had climate impacts around the globe.

Changes in ocean circulation can also impact fish and other marine life, with new currents bringing in different water and sometimes new pollution sources which can find their way into entire ecosystems related to the ocean area.

Every bottle report returned to the Drift Bottle Project helps to strengthen the understanding of the oceans, and assists in monitoring them for changes.

Drift bottle science is cheap, fun, and environmentally friendly.

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