Island School bottle messages adrift in the North Pacific

Even in today’s world of instant communication, a message in a bottle still excites the imagination. One hundred twenty-six Island School kindergarten through fourth-graders bubbled with excitement as they stuffed their messages into an assortment of glass bottles, destined for the North Pacific Ocean.

In the final days of the 2010–11 school year, Hawaiian studies teacher Sabra Kauka teamed with Steve Soltysik to help these youngsters write their notes with return address slips and seal them safely in their bottles with recycled melted crayons for their journey on the open sea.

Long-time sailor and licensed sea captain Steve Soltysik has been tossing bottles into the ocean for 26 years.

“My imagination has always been captivated by the energy of winds and ocean currents,” he said, as he explained what got him going with the Message in a Bottle program. “My bottles have traveled all over the world and across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One of my bottles was adrift for 14 years before it washed up onto the shore of Oregon.”

Tossing bottle messages into the ocean has developed into a dynamic educational curriculum that Soltysik has been sharing with students all over the world since 1985. Kaua‘i’s public and private school students were first introduced to it in 1996, when their bottles were tossed from the Hokule‘a as it traveled from Kaua‘i to O‘ahu.

“The objective of this program is to stir the imaginations of young students to ponder distant lands, winds and currents and the different people who might find their bottle messages,” he said.

The program stresses the idea that the Earth’s winds and oceans connect us all, that what happens off our shores has an effect on the entire planet.

“Children begin to understand that when trash gets thrown into the ocean, it doesn’t just disappear. Winds and currents take it out to sea, where it becomes a dangerous hazard to marine life, or it washes up on someone’s shore,” he said.

Students learn that their bottle messages do not wind up as litter. “Unlike plastic, glass bottles are made from quartz sand that eventually breaks up and returns to Mother Earth as natural sediment,” Soltysik said.

Island School’s bottle messages were delivered into the North Pacific last week, tossed overboard by crew members of the seven sailing canoes that departed Hanalei Bay on July 11. The canoes are part of the Okeanos project, on a voyage from the South Pacific to San Francisco. The bottle message project aligns well with the mission of Okeanos, which states on its website, “The ocean is at once a unique bridge between continents, an ally of the global climate and closely associated with the life of us human beings.”

The objective of Okeanos is to fund projects devoted to marine conservation.

“This is the first time that bottle messages have been cast adrift north of Kaua‘i, where they might catch different winds and currents,” said Soltysik.

Students are already asking if their messages have been found. It might take some months or even years before any return messages are received. Only seven to eight percent of bottle messages are ever found. But what is certain is that students involved in this project will never look at a bottle washed up on the beach in the same way.

And when they gaze out to sea, they will do so with a greater understanding of how all of us, regardless of where we live, are connected.

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