“SOS stranded.” So started the message in a bottle that washed up on shore yesterday just south of Tuross Head on the east coast of Australia, prompting an extensive helicopter search of the coastline and its offshore islands.

Message in a bottle sparks aerial search

Message in a bottle sparks aerial search Image by Karunakar Rayker / CC BY 2.0

The note, found by campers at Potato Point Beach, was dated 2 January and read “SOS stranded. Enough food for a few more days. Fuel in boat out. Do not know how much longer water will last. Last known coordinates 36.2500˚S 150.2167°E. Send help. Scared. Jenny Escabor & Nico Smithson.”

Despite extensive aerial searches, the rescue helicopter found no evidence of a boat in trouble, nor any sign of debris in the water, while attempts to identify those who wrote the note turned up nothing. Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter CEO Stephen Leahy told the ABC, “Sadly it appears it was probably a hoax.”

Sergeant Steve Winslow from the Eden Water Police concurred, saying “We’ve searched the New South Wales Police system for the two names [and] had no hits. Queensland nothing, Victoria nothing. AFP, social media, nothing at all. We’ve done Google searches and we’ve checked [names] with Customs and Immigration.”

Unless new information is made available, the police have now closed the case. The fruitless search proved costly, with Sergeant Winslow explaining resources from multiple branches of emergency services were involved: “Not only from police – also the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the helicopter … It’s a very expensive, long exercise just to follow up something like this.”

And though Mr Leahy agreed the hoax was a waste of valuable resources, he noted, “On the other side of that, that’s exactly the helicopter’s job: we’ve saved a lot of time and energy by police, probably local surf lifesavers and Maritime Rescue by quickly going up and down the coast and confirming that nothing is wrong.”

And, despite the technological resources now available to travellers, it’s nice to know that the trusty old message in a bottle still carries some weight…should you ever be stranded on an island without cell phone coverage.