Treasures found, opportunity lost to deep waters
In the breezy profession of beachcombing it is true that what is treasure to some is mere dross to others. When the find is a message in a bottle obscured by driftwood at the high-tide mark, there can be no dispute. Messages of forlorn love, of secrets long held, impending maritime disaster and more take leave of one hand to ride the ocean, to beach and lie dormant, until plucked by another’s in an act of revivification. There is always the delicious possibility that the sender will, with the help of intermediaries, unite with the intended finder. When I discovered a stash of letters and maps from treasure finders, buried and quite forgotten in a secure Hobartian vault, I was surprised that the senders did not share the finders’ excitement.
With eyes close to the sand, children are the best finders, and the best drawers of treasure maps. Adults tend to adapt existing maps, but not always. These maps carry the elation of their find to people far away they do not know but feel impelled to trust. Many years later I am touched also.
In reading the finders’ letters I discover a communion of souls whose thirst for oceanographic knowledge is akin to my own. The volume and strength of this new sharing acts as undertow, pulling me out from circumpolar currents, international circuits, drifters signalling to satellites, acoustic Doppler current profilers and the like. Sitting in the hushed quiet of the archival reading room the noise of pounding foam is mine alone to hear, rising and falling from distant, mainly unknown shores.
From Tokeran Beach, Doubtless Bay; Paradise Beach; Burning Palms; Five Rocks Beach; Townsend Island; Cochrane’s Gap; Whiritoa Beach; Weirri Beach; Bulga Beach; North West Island, Capricorn Group; Monkey Island; Hat-Head Beach; Jumpin Pin, South Stradbroke Island; Kwmera Island, New Hebrides; Alligator Ck, Moa Is., Torres Strait; Little River, Nadgee Nature Reserve; Meimeiyara, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea; Mason Bay; Racecourse Beach; Loch Ard Gorge; Cronulla; Manyana Beach; Yorke Island; Murramarang Beach, Bowley Pt nr Brush Is.; Werrong Beach; Mollymook Beach; Walkers Island, near Robbins Island; Rubbish Tip Beach; Orpheus Island; Riters Point, Moriteu Island; Otaki Beach; Jane Spiers Beach; Three Mile Ck., Himitangi Beach; Potato Point; Dark Point; West Cove, Erith Island; Coes Point; Maisie Bay; Wild Cattle Island, Colosseum Inlet; Grimand Island, Bay of Neponil; Kapiti Island; Half Moon Bay; Blinky Beach; Beecroft Head; Blackfellows Caves; Treachery Beach; Shangri-La nudist beach; Peaceful Bay; Halls Head; Sugarloaf Rock; Twin Beach; Red Beach; Poison Creek; Cape Naturaliste; Wakiki Sound; Doubtful Island Bay; Point Irwin; Windy Harbour; Circus Beach; Fish Creek; Smiths Beach; Salmon Bay; West Island; Plum Pudding Cove; Hummocks Beach; Cave Point; Twilight Cove …
There are many more, and even though the spelling may not be accurate, what a grand lesson on the littoral it would make. The thought of oceanic water forever on the move, shaping and creating all these shorelines, makes a mockery of the proprietorial nomenclature of national boundaries.
Whereas the identity, and more, of the finders is declared, proffered with generosity and hope, the senders adopt a kind of bland institutional anonymity. The senders were scientists studying ocean currents. Not so very long ago oceanographers from across the world contracted commercial fishers and assorted pilots of the air and sea to fling messaged bottles overboard to drift in the ocean until they reached land. The idea was that keen-eyed beach walkers would find and then return their treasure to the research station so the journey of the bottle could be recorded, thus enabling the currents of the ocean to be charted.
There is a quirky and refreshing accessibility to this scientific pursuit of oceanic currents that, in Australia, extended from the late 1930s to the 1970s, tapering in the 1980s. The programs ended, but there are bottles out there still, weighted to target currents of different depth. Initially there was a requirement to smash the bottle to retrieve the post-card message. Later the message shed its glass casing to rest inside a polythene pocket and, finally, it was imprinted on hard red plastic in the shape of a puffer fish and put out to drift the surface currents. Romance was not forsaken, though. According to official sources, ‘The appearance of the card lying on the seashore is intended to excite curiosity.’ And it did.
Knowledge of ocean currents is a work in progress. It gathered strength when imperial adventurers of the high seas explored new lands and navigated reliable trade routes, and as fisher people tracked fluctuations in coastal feeding grounds. Knowledge was pushed further to support more shipping routes, a fishing trade expanding into open waters, seabed industries, ambitious cable laying, military manoeuvres and pollution management. And now there are different questions, many related to long-term climate change, which push ocean knowledge further again, with technology sometimes leading, sometimes led, but certainly outstripping the drag lines of old.
Standing with back to the dunes, toes tightening around the wet sandy grit of the shoreline, I inhale marine mist as big waves divert from Betsey Island to crash ashore at Goat’s Bluff, just a short distance from Hobart. I zip the parched oil-skinned Barbour up to my neck, pull down on the CWA-knitted beanie, and dwell on questions that as a child I never bothered about. My questions invite a traditional chronicle of the water before me. I wonder about the journey of the wave fragment that, in this moment, in this place, washes over my feet. I want to know where the ocean water has come from to find its way to my now cleansed feet, standing on this particular Southern Hemisphere shoreline. I wonder about its transformations en route, its predictability of movement, whether ‘it’ has swept the ocean floor, climbed sea mounts, brushed across toes lingering by other shorelines, carrying their imprint to my own.
My new friends, those long-ignored finders and seekers, had these same questions. They wanted to know about the scientific program, but more than anything they wanted to know where their particular red fish travelled from, and for how long it was adrift. The message my finders found was an invitation to return the numbered ‘drift card’, along with details of the find, in exchange for a monetary reward. Boomerangs and postal orders were often sent to overseas finders. For each return the following data, with a few variations, was handwritten into tables:
|Latitude and longitude of release|
|Recovery latitude and longitude|
|Growth (None, Slight, Heavy, Alive)|
To calculate the distance, straight lines were drawn between the release and recovery positions, that is, by the British Admiralty’s ‘short distance sailing method’. The description of ‘Growth’ was to qualify this simple calculation, the logic being that the greater the growth the more extensive the journey. Those back at the lab hoped for a quick return, while of course those out beachcombing would hope their treasure had been at sea for many years.
Archived space is measured in metres of record, and the cards and printouts for these programs have serious ‘length’. The vast majority of recording was pre-computers and it is a challenge to track statistical or graphical processing of the data beyond the tabulation itself. There were several programs with different aims. For one it was noted that the recoveries in 1943–48 had not been fully recorded, and that there were problems in identifying the local place names used by finders. For another more compact program in 1964–65, there were 191 returns from 4100, with an average drifting time of 20 days. The task of evaluating the contribution of the drift-card programs to physical oceanography would be a challenge given the practical limitations, the onset of other technology and the funding cycles for particular programs. My idea of a eureka moment is to connect sequenced drift-card evidence to published findings about a contemporary current newly charted, understood, mapped with directional arrows setting an undersea conduit. My new friends and I want a grand tale of epic bottle migrations and drift-card beachings on coastal ways that we walk with a local knowing of sorts.
There may be other repositories of finders’ letters, but the ones I read were received by CSIRO in the 1970s, and they were largely in response to releases from eastern Australian stations and from Sprightly voyages off western Australia. Physically, this translates to nine bulging archive boxes, with each letter arranged in numerical order of the release series, so when there is a jump from Card No. 371 to Card No. 397 you know which messages remain out there, either lost at sea or drifting, still in search of shoreline, and the possibility of a rendezvous.
Although the ocean current stories are difficult to extrapolate from the thousands of drift cards, the science did uncover a multitude of life stories united by the ocean. Much to the exasperation of under-resourced technical officers, finders rarely limited themselves to the rigid information requested by the CSIRO senders. They wrote letters infused with the excitement and wonder of finding a little fish that had braved the ocean for a scientific mission. They wanted to share the moment. They explained, exactly:
(1) Where the find took place
High-tide mark. In driftwood. Near rocks. Dry sand. Back of the beach. Down below the big steps. North of where 72 large whales came ashore on 30.10.74. South end of beach. 100 yards from wreck of Hyderabad. Under a heavy rock. On top of seaweed. 90 paces south of sewerage outlet. With hundreds of bluebottles, a sea snake, plenty of debris. Washed up through the mangroves. Remote beach. 20 air miles NE Bremer Bay. See on the photo. Very remote beach. Same spot as five floats from Bass Strait. Near the wreck of the Maheno. Near the cliffs. In oversize stockpile, Rutile mine. Marked on the map. In pairs, approximately 10 feet apart. Found in bush. On the left side of the groyne. Caught in my fisheries net. On the edge of the surf. Among a clump of seaweed. On the sand between two jetties. On a rubble wall. In low scrub. Between sloppy rock and some limestone. On a rather lovely stretch of beach.
(2) When the find took place
On my birthday. 7.00a.m. Approximately 8.00 a.m. Easter Monday. Xmas Day. 12 noon. After big seas. Following a N.E. or East wind. The fish were biting (tailor). First of April, 1972. Lost card for six years. We were on holidays. After a terrible storm. After southerly wind. When swimming. On Tuesday. Rolling back rocks looking for crabs. About two weeks ago. On a beautiful fine day. After 2 days of rain. When I went to go and have a wash. After Cyclone Vanessa. While walking in the evening. When I was being buried. While board surfing. Beachcombing. Camping on the beach. While looking for cuttlefish for budgerigars. While searching for shells. Hiking with the scouts. While fishing off the rocks. While strolling along the beach. Fishing. Whilst oyster-picking. On my usual walk-about. On a picnic. Enjoying a family walk. As I was going around my sheep. While greenstone hunting. When I was pushing my canoe into the sea. As I walked alone on the beach.
(3) Who found the card
Michael, 16 years and seven months. Judite, neatest writer, 10v Kemblawarra Public School. Professional fisherman. It’s Granny. Russian scout troop. Master Nicholas Christian, Norfolk Island. Ian Turner, historian, Erith Island. My son Andrew. My mother about two years ago. My daughter. History Master. Fisherman’s six kids (who comb the sand like a flock of turkeys). Head Lightkeeper, Cape Leeuwin. My brother and I. Park Ranger. Two-year-old Tara. Mine manager. Walter, unemployed, Mission Beach (can you give me a job?). Student, interested in ocean science as a career (results provided). Underwater Research group, on holiday. Telecom Australia Inspector. Retired ornithologist. Lightkeeper, Cape Everard. Youth leader. Scallop boat worker. By me.
About one-third of finders stitched together stories with details well beyond what was requested. Some of this detail was to help the senders determine how long the card had been in situ. Mostly the effort was to share the moment, to rejoice in the find and, importantly, to celebrate that somehow, the little fish had found them. As Margaret, finder of card 6888, explained, ‘It was quite an exciting find for me.’ News of these finds entered classrooms and local newspaper columns. The best measure of this sentiment was the reluctance to return the red fish card imprinted with its individual number. For bartering strength, finders regularly relinquished the reward of 30 cents—later 70 cents—in order to keep the fish.
A few bold finders, like 12-year-old Joanna Murray-Smith, declared ‘I would like to keep the card but I would like the reward.’ Others took a rubbing of the card, explaining they would like to keep the fish as a souvenir, as a holiday memento, as part of a beachcombing collection. It was their find, and their trophy to keep! Others held on to the card for show and tell before reluctantly returning it. ‘Please forgive me for not sending this card (4524) straight away, I got such a kick out of finding it, brought it home to show my friends, who are so interested, especially the school children …’
The most common request from finder to sender was a plea for information about the research program and, more specifically, about the journey of their particular fish card. Once again, the reward was the bartering point. The usual refrain was: Please, don’t worry about the 30 cents, but can you tell me how far has this fish come, and when it was released? We’ll look forward to hearing exactly where this card No. 3199 was placed. Could you tell me the date you let it go from NSW as the fishermen up here would also like to know? Deeply interested to know how far and how long it was in the water. Where has the card drifted from, how long has it been drifting? Could you tell me about some small part this card (8164) plays in your project thank you? From Paul, Bedarra Island: where is the farthest part of the world that you have had these drift cards returned from? Where was this one thrown in the sea? Rebecca, more forthright, asks, What are you up to?
For the finder there was special value attached to a find on a remote beach. For those living along the more isolated coastline of New Zealand, Western Province Papua, New Caledonia and some of the small Pacific islands, these fish were beacons of civilisation that had, almost miraculously, found their sandy patch of the world. The connectivity of the ocean was palpable. It was not only the physical distance that was being traversed, it was an opportunity for distant minds to meet.
Finders offered further assistance. And further conversation about things oceanographic. One finder wanted CSIRO’s opinion on the non-emergence of the salmon run along the south coast, another on the smoke curing of fish. From New Zealand came a call for help regarding the ocean pollution from the Steel Mining Company, south of Lake Taharoa. From Wilson Beach, Proserpine, advice was sought about a disease of the fins and eyes that was affecting the local fish. There was concern expressed for large numbers of dead mutton birds washed up on the beach. One veteran beachcomber requested Australian shells (will pay postage). A farmer on Chatham Island expressed an ‘interest in most of the ‘ologies, including oceanography’, and noted the farm’s 200-acre reserve abutting a large fur seal colony.
On less oceanographic themes, a young finder from Dargaville, New Zealand, hoped CSIRO could source a 12-year-old girl to be her penfriend. Kali from Felemea Is. (Tonga Is.) wanted a new life, as did some senders from Western Province, Papua New Guinea. Kenneth, from Dara, was quite specific. In lieu of the stated reward, he requested a second-hand dinghy, fibre glass, with a 60 or 70 horse power engine.
Primarily, though, the real thirst for knowledge and connection was around the specific find. Clearly CSIRO struggled to quench this thirst. The official response varied over the years but usually our finders received a form letter describing the generic purpose of the program appended by a CSIRO pamphlet. Sometimes they were given the release coordinates, and later in the 1970s, some were given the release date. I hope the technical officers enjoyed these missives. Much care was taken in the composition of letters, and in drawing the ‘treasure’ maps that marked the finds. Apart from the regular offerings of a weather report and fish tally, some respondents wrote in good cheer, with humour focused on the miserly monetary reward: Don’t worry about the 30 cents, just send some big fish up this way; Put the 30 cents into the tin for your Xmas party; Take yer 30 cents down to the nearest boozer and get pissed; I do not want any payment, just drop another one in and think of us.
Like many of the finders, I have come to know that the understanding of ocean currents I yearn for is best captured, or so you would think, by a message in a bottle thrown overboard one dark and stormy night. Around the world drift-card programs continue today and, with the help of the internet, they fulfil community education requirements, particularly for programs tracking pollution. I suspect that many of these card finders who can follow the releases online are also left feeling a little bereft. These bottles and little red fish have a story to tell. It is about a world largely unseen, where change happens, one we want to imagine and comprehend as we walk our shorelines. We might even develop a better naming for our ocean waters, names that distinguish and characterise those currents and eddies that connect us, with such serendipity, to other lands.
The images are sourced from National Archives of Australia, CSIRO Division of Fisheries and Oceanography; P2793, Files containing Finders’ letters for drift cards, 1970–84. •