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Message in a bottle, high-tech style

Artist tracks progress of bottle he set afloat in Pacific last April as part of awareness effort about precariousness oceans. Whoever finds it near Philippines could earn $250 bounty.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
Plastiki skipper David de Rothschild prepares to release the bottle into the Pacific Ocean last April. The bottle has a special satellite tag inside that allows it to be tracked on a daily basis. The Plastiki Expedition

For nearly a year, a glass bottle has been heading west on the high seas, bringing with it a message of the precariousness of the oceans. And at every step of its long journey, it has told the world where it is. Meet the message in a bottle, high-tech edition.

For 17 years, California artist Jay Little has been putting traditional messages in standard bottles and sending them seaward, hoping that they would one day encounter someone and create a new relationship. But for each of more than 200 attempts, it was all analog: Until someone found one of the bottles, Little had no idea where they were or even if they were still afloat.

But last year, Little set out to throw some technology at the problem, and in a partnership with David de Rothschild, the skipper of the Plastiki Expedition, a new bottle was tossed into the North Equatorial Current, and it has been phoning home every day since.

Little said that with the help of a biologist friend who regularly tracks penguins in the wilds Antarctic, this new bottle was put into the Pacific Ocean complete with a satellite tag that is constantly sending its location and direction to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Each day, Little gets that information and each afternoon, he uploads it to a Google Map on the Plastiki Web site that shows the public precisely where the bottle is.

The bottle, including its satellite tag The Plastiki Expedition

As of yesterday, Little said, the bottle--a nine-liter, 20-inch-long glass behemoth complete with the satellite tag, an antenna, and some ballast to keep it upright, was making steady progress west and was just onshore of the Philippine island of Mindanao. Little is offering a $250 bounty for its recovery.

Little, who lives in California's Marin County, worked with the crew of the Plastiki, the all-recyclable plastic catamaran skippered by de Rothschild, since both are trying to raise awareness of the ongoing dangers to ocean ecosystems by garbage and other waste polluting the seas. De Rothschild took the bottle with him when the Plastiki launched March 20 from Sausalito, Calif., and last April 24, he launched it while about 840 miles south of Hawaii.

Since then, according to the data it's been sending out, we know that the bottle has been heading steadily west, except when it got stuck in a gyre and spent five weeks going in circles between two opposing currents. Eventually, though, the bottle broke free and resumed its westward path, Little said.

Little told CNET that it was "appropriate" that the bottle got stuck in the very gyre--complete with huge amounts of garbage--that the crew of the Plastiki had set out to study on its 5,000 mile journey from California to Australia.

He explained that while the bottle has gotten to within 2.5 miles of the island of Mindanao, there's still only a 1-in-10 chance of someone finding it. But Little is hoping that by getting the word out that the bottle is approaching land, those odds may increase. "It's the first time I know where my bottle is while it's [moving] around," he said.

If the bottle escapes detection in the next few days, Little said, it could probably keep on sending out data about its location for another year or so, and the bottle itself can probably stay afloat for several more years.

Previous bottles he's sent into the oceans have tended to get weighed down by algae, but Little said that he engineered this one to stay tighter in order to protect the satellite tag inside. Still, he said, it wouldn't likely survive a collision with a rock, and if it does go underwater, the mission is probably over.

Over the years, Little has put more than 230 bottles into the oceans, and just 22 have been discovered. Each has been stuffed with a two-page, hand-decorated note asking for help with his long-term project to help get the word out about the oceans. He's basically a non-digital guy who realized it was time to give technology a chance.

"I've been the anti-tech guy for years, using these bottles," Little said, "and I finally thought it would be a good change to have a Web-based system to follow it. The bottle itself catches me up on technology. It's definitely harder to watch a bottle than it is to release it and let it go."