Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 15, 1997

On Technology:
Many Happy Returns
From Tochko's

Ben Walker
APL Office of Communications
and Public Affairs
John Tochko writes notes for a hobby.

As an oceanographic engineer in the Strategic Systems Department, Tochko goes to sea once or twice a year to conduct experiments. He takes these opportunities to drop small bottles overboard containing notes that have shown up all over the world, thousands of miles away and years later.

"I've sent out about 200 bottles in 20 years and heard back from 15 of them," Tochko says.

His "sea-mail" messages have been found on beaches from Washington State to the Philippines, from Bermuda to County Clare, Ireland. The notes say when and where the bottle was tossed in the waves and tell their surprised readers, "This bottle is part of a study of ocean currents. Please return this note for a small reward."

In 1996 Rogglio Lunato found a Tochko bottle that took two years to make its way from the coast of California to the Philippines. Lunato wrote that he was 38, a fisherman, and from a family of five brothers and six sisters that was "not so rich, not much poor." Tochko sent him a fishing knife, APL baseball cap and a nylon tool bag.

Tochko began his unusual hobby in 1978 as a graduate student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "The scientist I was working with dropped some bottled notes, and I started on the very next trip," he says. "It's fun, it's intriguing."

Tochko is continuing a long tradition. In 310 B.C. the Greek philosopher Theophrastus used bottles to prove his theory that the Mediterranean had been formed by water flowing in from the Atlantic. In 1929 a German scientist released a bottle in the South Indian Ocean with instructions that it be recorded then thrown back into the sea. Six years later, after several stops, it was found off the coast of Australia after a journey of 16,000 miles. And in 1943 a bottle washed up in a Japanese fishing village containing a message that had been written in 1784.

With minor variations, Tochko has used the same technique over the years. He puts the note inside a 10-ounce, clear glass soda bottle, screws on the cap, then seals it with about six turns of black electrical tape.

The biggest change he has made is in the note itself.

"I was beginning to get discouraged after I had no returns from my first 100 bottles. When I finally got a note back--it was from a bottle that had been 18 months at sea--I noticed it had faded badly," he says. Figuring that the sun was bleaching out his inked messages and leaving them blank, Tochko switched to computer-printed notes, and since then the response rate has picked up considerably.

"Now I'm always hoping for a surprise in the mail, hoping to hear from who knows where," Tochko says.

Editor's note: Literally five minutes after Tochko was interviewed, he received a letter from a New Jersey vacationer who found a bottle in Bermuda on Aug. 5, 1997, launched in the Gulf of Mexico Nov. 24, 1995. Bottles launched at the same time have been picked up in Ireland, Texas, Florida and the Bahamas.

This story originally appeared in the September issue of APL News and is reprinted with permission.

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