Solving a mystery in a bottle

One sentence, one address, no name. Two years removed and half a world away.

By Nick Alexopulos

In late January 2014, only a few short weeks separated Tommy Zanowic from an upcoming semester abroad in New Zealand. He was on the precipice of adventure, and that precipice happened to be the Jersey Shore.

And that’s where Zanowic, unknowingly, began his international experience.

“I was excited to see more places and meet more people,” said Zanowic, a 2015 Loyola graduate who was a junior at the time.

Tommy Zanowic, '15, at Island Beach State Park in 2014.

Tommy Zanowic at Island Beach State Park in January 2014.

His excitement begot inspiration. The West Mantoloking, N.J., resident took a short trip 12 miles north with his friend, Bridget Braaten, to Island Beach State Park in Ocean County. Their cargo was an empty bottle of San Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water—glass, green, 9.3 fluid ounces—along with a plain white sheet of paper and a pen. They had a message to someone, anywhere in the world, and they kept it short: one unmemorable line followed by Loyola’s mailing address and Zanowic’s mail stop number, MS 1039.

Braaten handwrote the note. The pair didn’t include their names or any other identifying information. They rolled up the paper, inserted it into the bottle, secured the cap, and set the bottle adrift.

“We were hoping to get a personal letter back from someone completely random and start a sort-of pen pal relationship out of the blue,” recalled Zanowic. “We never thought anyone would actually find it.”

Découverte: Une Bouteille

Fast-forward two years, to Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. French artist David Folley is walking with his two sons on Tariec Island near Landéda, a village in Brittany in northwestern France. Folley creates art with objects he finds on the beach in this area close to his home, nearly 3,400 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Island Beach State Park.

In the dunes, Folley discovers a green, glass bottle, washed ashore during a recent high tide. The bottle’s labels are long gone, its cap caked in algae and barnacles. Inside, there is a weathered note:

David Folley and his sons.

David Folley and his sons.

Write to us about your good fortunes!!!

4501 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21210
MS 1039

Folley is overcome with intrigue. He searches online for the U.S. address written on the note, his only real clue, and lands on Loyola University Maryland.

But whom does he contact?

Just ask Loyola … on Facebook

That same day, Folley called his local newspaper, which interviewed him for a story. He also left a comment on Loyola’s official page on Facebook. He was confident the message sender had some affiliation with the university, but with no other information at his disposal Facebook was the obvious first touch point. He assumed the bottle came from Baltimore because there was no indication (yet) that it was launched from somewhere else.

Loyola’s office of marketing and communications (MarComm) on Monday evening asked Folley to send more details in an email. Determined, he replied with three images of the bottle and the note, along with his phone number. MarComm forwarded Folley’s email to André Colombat, Ph.D., dean of international programs and native of France, who called Folley so he could relay details in French to ensure nothing got lost in translation.

Colombat asked Folley to measure the paper. Eight-and-a-half by 11. European paper is a larger format. Was the note really written in America? Did it actually travel that far? Or maybe this was paper a student brought with them abroad?

Photos David Folley sent Loyola.

Photos David Folley sent Loyola.

Equipped with more information, MarComm and international programs promised Folley they’d investigate. He was extraordinarily grateful.

“Thank you, and do not hesitate to contact me if you have information!”

Never underestimate the interconnectedness of the Loyola community

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, MarComm posted Folley’s pictures on Facebook accompanied by a call to action: help us solve this mystery. The post eventually reached more than 13,000 people, many sharing the photos with their own networks. A similar Instagram photo on Wednesday morning supported the search on social media.

It didn’t take long.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Braaten tagged Zanowic on Loyola’s Facebook post and commented, “The bottle came from Island Beach State Park in N.J.!” Zanowic replied almost immediately. They also tagged the Instagram photo.

“To be honest I completely forgot about it until I saw it on Instagram today,” Zanowic said in an email. “I think both of us thought someone in Seaside Park would find [the bottle] in a day or two and throw it away. I am still in shock that it floated all the way across the Atlantic.”

Folley provided an update to his own friends on Facebook who were following the story closely.

“The people who sent the bottle have arisen via the [Facebook] page of the university. I can’t believe it … thanks to social networking sites, the mystery is solved!”

From start to finish, Folley and the Loyola community made this connection in just under three and a half days. They used nothing more than a handful of clues from an indistinguishable bottle and one-line message seemingly lost forever until its two-year journey ended on a remote beach in France.

Serving its purpose

Photo of the message-in-a-bottle by Bridget Braaten.

The message-in-a-bottle before its journey. (Photo by Bridget Braaten)

Zanowic majored in finance at Loyola. He now works as a financial advisor at Harbor Lights Financial Group in Manasquan, N.J., and he lives in his hometown of West Mantoloking, not far from the beach where this story began. He’s already exchanged messages with Folley (through Facebook this time) and plans on sending him letters in the future.

“I plan on visiting France one day, so maybe we can meet up in the future,” said Zanowic. “I feel like there is a reason why something like this happened. I don’t know what the reason is, but I’m not just going to let it be.”

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4 Comments

  • Posted by Manette Frese, Loyola Director of Graduate Marketing | January 14, 2016

    What a fun, fabulous story. Vive social media! And curious French artists!

  • Posted by David Folley | January 14, 2016

    Merci pour ce bel article, incroyable, quelle histoire! Une nouvelle page va s’ouvrir, en espérant vous voir un de ces jours dans le New Jersey ou en France!

    Merci, Thanks, Nick Alexopulos :)

  • Posted by Tarek Obaid | February 11, 2016

    a very fun adventure and an example of useful utilization of social media.

  • Posted by Mary Jane Brutzman | March 22, 2016

    This Jersey girl graduated in 1977 and spent many summers in Lavalette,NJ. I learned to swim in the ocean there along with so many treasured memories. My grandfather and I walked the shoreline every morning ,chatted with the fishermen and always ended our walk with looking out at the sea as my grandfather said to me “some day go see what’s on the other side of the Atlantic”. I hope some day you get to do that too.

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