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<b>Four-Toed Shaka</b><br>The Madagascar giant day gecko, recently established in the Hawaiian Islands.<br><i>Photo: David Liitschwager</i>
Vol. 13, no. 6
Dec. 2010 - Jan. 2011

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Messages in a Bottle 

Story by Marcel Stone

photo by Dana Edmunds

Sea mail: Kailua Intermediate School teacher Derek Esibill offers his seventh-grade science students an innovative lesson in both ocean circulation and extreme patience.

Following a twelve-year stint
as chief mate on the Robert C. Seamans research vessel, Derek Esibill settled into his dream life: A cottage in O‘ahu’s picture-perfect Lanikai neighborhood and a job teaching earth and space science at Kailua Intermediate. A dedicated teacher, Esibill has spent much of his personal time (and money) thinking up innovative ways to engage his students. In 2007 he came up with an idea that employs a centuries-old act of romance, adventure and blind hope to teach the principles of ocean circulation.


Esibill asked his seventh-graders to write letters to anyone living … well, anywhere. He sealed them in twenty wine bottles and gave them to his friends aboard the Seamans, who dropped them in the North Pacific halfway between Hawai‘i and Palmyra (15 degrees N, 157 degrees W for you nautical buffs). Six months later a 13-year-old girl in Papua New Guinea found one, read about what life was like in a Kailua public school and replied to its sender (also, coincidentally, a 13-year-old girl). Six months after that another letter arrived, this one from a girl in the Tuamotu Islands east of Tahiti. Her family, she wrote, had traveled two days to Tahiti to mail her response.


While for the students it was a fasci-nating lesson in oceanography, the results surprised even Esibill. “It was astonishing for the bottles to have traveled that far across the equator in such a short amount of time,” Esibill says, adding that because of the Coriolis effect—the inertial influence of the Earth’s rotation—it’s rare for objects on the ocean’s surface to cross the equator. The bottles, he reasons, must have been picked up immediately after being dropped and carried swiftly toward the equator, where they were likely caught in an eddy that carried them across.


Last June Esibill repeated the experiment: Ten bottles, each containing a letter from a student in his seventh-grade class, were dropped from the Seamans south of the Pacific Gyre and north of the California Current. Esibill’s hope? When the kids return to eighth-grade science class next fall, they’ll have a reply waiting for them from someone in Japan.