By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times
For centuries people have launched bottles into the seas for sentimental reasons -- to preserve a paean to lost love,
perhaps, or to feed a basic human desire to touch a soul in a distant land.
Dean Bumpus did it for science -- and on a scale that
likely has no rival.
To track ocean currents, the scientist at the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts pitched tens of thousands of glass vessels into the Atlantic Ocean for 30 years,
starting in 1948.
" Break This Bottle, " the labels Mr. Bumpus affixed to
Inside each was a postcard asking the finder to reply
with the date and place the bottle was found. In return, Mr. Bumpus sent a 50-cent reward.
Although primitive, Mr. Bumpus' methodology enabled him
to write a pioneering study of coastal circulation off the Eastern United States.
" His bottle studies are monumental and, according to
my studies, released more bottles than anyone," said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle scientist who, as a byproduct of plotting
the paths of ocean pollutants, became the country's foremost expert on high seas flotsam. " I greatly admired his work."
No one knows exactly how many bottles were set adrift
by Mr. Bumpus, who died March 14 at his home in Woods Hole after a distinguished 40-year career in oceanography. Known
as " Bump " to his colleagues, he was 89.
He once said that during the 1960s alone he or his conscripts
flung 165,566 bottles from ships and planes along the East Coast. Ebbesmeyer suspects the total number throughout Mr.
Bumpus' research well exceeded 200,000.
Many were presumed sunk under the weight of barnacles
that may have attached themselves to the bottles on the high seas. Despite such perils, the return rate during
the '60s was about 10 percent -- some 16,000 bottles.
Most were found along the 600-mile stretch of the Eastern
Seaboard between Cape Hatteras and the tip of Maine. But some washed up in Ireland. One bottle got as far as Mediterranean
In 1967, then - Vice President Hubert Humphrey dropped
one of Bump's drifters from the institute's research vessel, Atlantis II, off Gloucester; Mass. It turned up just 20
miles away -- four years later.
Another bottle was adrift for 33 years. No. 4653, launched from
a research ship in the mid-Atlantic north of Bermuda in 1951, was returned to the institute in 1984 after it was found on
a New Jersey beach.
In all those years, Mr. Bumpus said, he was " held up
" only once -- by a hard-bargaining woman in Vero Beach, Fla, who sniffed at his measly reward.
" I have one of your bottles," she wrote. " I collect
things of this sort when I find them. I also collect $2 bills. That is what it will take to get the number off
this bottle and where I found it."
Another time a man in Canada wrote a poem about one of
the drift bottles. Mr. Bumpus tracked him down. He lived in a house with a dirt floor strewn with fish bones and
other things. In a corner was a battered typewriter where the clam-digger poet had created his simple verse.