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"I'll send an SOS to the world
—The Police, Message in a Bottle
So things are looking pretty grim. A character is trapped somewhere terrible, usually an island in the middle of an ocean, a slave ship, or somewhere that it just plain sucks to be and there's no way to get a message to anyone. In this desperate situation, the only hope possible is a futile grasp at straw. Take a bottle, put in a hastily written cry for help and hope that somewhere, someone, somehow manages to find the bottle and lend a hand.
Lucky thing the odds of this happening are a Million-to-One Chance, or else this wouldn't be much of a storytelling device.
Despite the obvious problems with this trope, it still retains a fair amount of popularity, due to some advantages that it confers. First, the Message in a Bottle is such a desperate ploy for help that a character really has to be scraping the bottom of the barrel to even try it. It reeks of desperation. Second, usually the people who receive the message are completely unknown to whoever sent it, so their decision to help the sender of this random note from the middle of nowhere helps establish that they are, without a doubt, the good guys. Third, it's a workable Framing Device, both in the sense that the message spurs all the action of the story but also that the message can relate all of the action of the story, if the note turns out to be detailed.
It also shows up fairly often for completely different reasons, as the Message in a Bottle itself is a well-known staple of fiction. It's nearly a Discredited Trope, for that matter, but not quite yet. This appears to be somewhat related to Apocalyptic Log.
- In Shoulder a Coffin Kuro, Kuro once communicated with a girl with this, but the bottle somehow disappears and appears on its own, and it happens on land, not sea. It got delivered by a motorbike guy.
- Several of these wash up after the events of each arc of Umineko no Naku Koro ni, purporting to be written by Maria. However, they tend to be contradictory and generally confuse the hell out of everyone trying to investigate what happened; the anime suggests that the two that washed up during Ange's timeline detailed the first and second arcs.
- An episode of Detective Conan had the Detective Boys find a message in a plastic bottle reading "SOS" washed toward the shore. The message was written recently by a woman who was near unconscious in a tide cave.
- In one Uncle Scrooge comic book, Huey, Dewey and Louie find a message in a bottle from someone stranded on an island -- who turns out to be a Beagle Boy.
- In the 1954 Disney film version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ned Land uses multiple messages in bottles to notify the authorities of the location of Captain Nemo's island so they can attack it.
- The Thing (1982). MacReady is shown dictating an Apocalyptic Log into a tape recorder, which he states he intends to hide in the faint hope that it would be found by a search party if they're all killed. Or worse.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Will leaves messages in bottles for Cutler Beckett, with directions to Shipwreck Cove. Unlike most examples, he doesn't trust chance to deliver them, but attaches them to barrel-lashed corpses so that scavenging seabirds will gather in conspicuous flocks, easily visible from the Endeavour.
- The premise of the Planet of the Apes novel is that a couple on an intergalactic cruise ship finds the whole story written and put inside a bottle that's out in space, combining this trope with the Literary Agent Hypothesis and Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.
- The Nicholas Sparks novel as well as The Film of the Book of the same title.
- A message in a bottle is discovered at the end of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. The author of the message claims to have gotten the idea from adventure stories.
- The short story A Saucer of Loneliness by Theodore Sturgeon, which was adapted into an episode of the new The Twilight Zone.
- The Land That Time Forgot. The original book by Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as the Film of the Book.
- Edgar Allan Poe's Manuscript Found In A Bottle (1833), making this Older Than Radio at a minimum, and probably even older.
- James Bond leaves a message taped inside an aeroplane toilet in the novel Goldfinger.
- The framing device of Yosl Rakover talks to God is that the novella is a crossover prayer/diary written by Holocaust victim Yosl Rakover, hidden in a basement in the ghetto of Warsaw, and found after the war. In reality, it was written in Argentina in the late forties by Zvi Kolitz, and Yosl Rakover is a fictional character. This important fact was dropped in some inofficial reprints, leading people to believe that the framing story was true, something the author never intended. When faced with the existence of an author, many chose to denounce the story as a fraud, rather than laud it as a marvelously insightful piece of fiction. A meta case of Misaimed Fandom?
- In Winnie the Pooh a flood threatens Piglet's home so he sends out a message in a bottle hoping for help. Pooh spots the bottle but can't understand the message, so he sets off to find Christopher Robin and they both go to Piglet's rescue.
- In Truman Capote's short story, Hello, Stranger, a respectable family man happens upon a message in bottle while swimming in the ocean. He replies to the sender, a 12-year-old girl named Linda Reilly, which starts a chain of tragedy.
- H.P. Lovecraft's story The Temple is a message in a bottle sent by a German World War I submarine captain.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo plans to use one to assure his research is not lost:
"Here, Professor Aronnax, is a manuscript written in several languages. It contains a summary of my research under the sea, and God willing, it won't perish with me. Signed with my name, complete with my life story, this manuscript will be enclosed in a small, unsinkable contrivance. The last surviving man on the Nautilus will throw this contrivance into the sea, and it will go wherever the waves carry it.".
- In Lost, four survivors set sail on a raft, attempting to secure rescue. They take along a bottle containing messages from the rest of the survivors to their families. When the raft blows up, the bottle returns to the island with the tide, alerting those still on the island that something has Gone Horribly Wrong on the raft. This is a rare instance of the bottle returning with the tide, which is possibly a more likely outcome than the bottle actually reaching other people.
- As revealed later, the island can only be entered and exited on certain bearings, so the bottle (and the raft) was going to return to the island anyway.
- One episode of the Swedish Pippi Longstocking television show had the eponymous character asserting that her father had been captured by pirates because he sent her messages with bottles- something which most of the townspeople understandably regard as being utterly preposterous. But this being a children's show, this is naturally exactly what has happened.
- On Gilligan's Island Mary Ann had a Fake Boyfriend on the mainland she pretended to communicate with in this way.
- Survivorman is a Canadian reality show in which the star, Les Stroud, is dropped into various environments to survive for 7 days with no equipment. One episode was based around him being in a life raft in the middle of the ocean, followed by being beached on an island. Les then invokes the trope and actually throws a message in a bottle into the sea, with him even highlighting the last ditch, utter desperation of such an act. Possibly subverted though, because at the end of the episode, a message states that while he put his cell phone number on the message, nobody has ever phoned in.
- Star Trek: Voyager has an episode of trope's name. Apparently the Doctor is the message and the bottle is...well, the trope's common enough that we can figure it out from the title.
- One episode of Haven included a clever adaptation of this trope; the main character was trapped on a boat heading out to sea and had already gone out of range of the cell towers. Instead she sent a text message, and her phone naturally began repeatedly trying to send it. She then dropped it into a bottle and shoved it out the porthole where it drifted with the tide back to shore until getting back into coverage range, when the message was sent.
- In the original The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are stranded on prehistoric Earth, and attempt to attract the attention of a passing spaceship by waving a towel at it. A volcano then erupts, covering the towel with lava. When the Earth is blown up six million years later, the now-fossilized towel gets launched into space and found by Zaphod Beeblebrox in the spaceship Heart Of Gold, who travels back in time and rescues them. (Things like this tend to happen whenever you use the Heart Of Gold's "Infinite Improbability" drive.)
- The Pioneer and Voyager plaques and records: no one really expects that anything will discover them, but wouldn't it be cool to think someone could?
- Or it may just be attracting attention from things that should be left the hell alone.
- Actually, messages in bottles are used quite often in the 19th century to map ocean currents, the message being a breif instruction on where to mail the bottle to.
- The was once a job in the British Royal Navy called "Uncorker of Ocean Bottles" as captains sometimes use sea bottles to carry secret messages back to shore or stuff their log books into a empty cask to serve as a "black box" of sorts. Anyone found uncorking a bottle with a message in it in Elizabethan England is guilty of a capital offence.
- A German boy tossed a bottle into the Baltic Sea, and a Russian boy found it on a beach 24 years later.
- In the adventure game King's Quest IV, Rosella gets swallowed by a whale and inside its throat finds a bottle with a message in it containing advertisements for some of Sierra's earlier games.
- Kingdom Hearts II features one that seemingly opens a gate between worlds.
- It also features several others. Apparently, one of the most reliable ways to make sure that a specific person gets your message in a timely manner is to stuff it in a bottle and chuck it in the ocean.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link gains access to Jabu Jabu by presenting a Message in a Bottle written by Princess Ruto to the King, asking for rescue as she is trapped inside Jabu Jabu's belly. Interestingly, the message turns out to be several months old and Ruto has long since figured out how to leave Jabu Jabu- it turns out that her recent absence was for a completely different reason.
- Appears in a Kingdom of Loathing adventure. Bottles found on the beach may contain messages reading "Help me, I'm trapped inside a Cloaca-Cola bottling plant!", magical scrolls, or for some reason blank paper.
- You can send and receive messages in a bottle in Animal Crossing: Wild World.
- You do this by writing a message, then putting the DS in a low-power state that leaves the wireless on and carrying it around with you. Should you happen to pass by another DS in the same state, you'll trade messages, an interesting approximation of the low odds of success inherent in actual bottle throwing (subject, of course, to the concentration of fellow gamers in your environment).
- In Illusion of Gaia, Will and Kara find one of these, ironically while shipwrecked at sea, so their discovery of the message doesn't do a heck of a lot of good to whoever tossed it out there.
- In Phantom Brave, Marona receives some of her missions from messages in a bottle. Justified (sorta) in that these bottles are living constructs, and actively swim to their destinations. You can even recruit them to fight by your side.
- Finding messages in floating bottles while exploring in her kayak allows Nancy to find a hidden location in Danger on Deception Island.
- Parodied in Freefall - Florence needs to relay a message, but no one will help her and email is unavailable. When she unsuccessfully tries putting a message in a bottle down the drain of a sink, she muses, "either I need a bigger sink, or a smaller bottle."
- Subverted in Clerks the Animated Series. Randall makes one of these while trapped in the Pyramid, desperately hoping that Dante will somehow get his message. Through a series of Contrived Coincidence after Contrived Coincidence, the message actually does get to Dante in the form of a pop bottle that a member of his little league team gives him to celebrate a victory - but upon seeing that there's something in the bottle Dante just throws it away and makes the kid get him another one.
- This is the impetus for all of the action in The Rescuers. Penny sends the message which causes the mouse rescue society to come and try to save her.
- Played with in one Scooby Doo cartoon. While searching for a ghost ship, the gang finds a note in a bottle:
Daphne: What does it say?