Mike Ley is a beachcomber and collector from Littleton, Colorado. A retired engineer for a mining company, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and loves to fish, hunt, ride ATVs, travel, and hike. A “Winter Texan” since 2007, Mike travels south with his wife during the colder months in a travel trailer. While there, he usually spends a few days every week scouring the Gulf Coast of Texas for beach treasures.
Though he searches for many different treasures on the beach—sea beans, shells, beach glass, otoliths, fishing lures, floats, duck decoys, trap tags, and drift cards—Mike always keeps his eyes open for his most sought-after treasure: an MIB, or, a message in a bottle.
“I check every bottle I come across to see if it is sealed and contains anything besides sea water,” says Mike. “I guess in the many miles of beach I have covered, I have picked up hundreds of bottles and held them up to the sunlight to check for a message. Occasionally I get lucky.“
In his 14 years searching at the beach, he has found ten MIBs and his wife, Sandy, has found two.
“Finding an MIB is always the highlight of a beach day. I consider them messages from friends I haven’t met yet,” Mike says.
Though he’s also searched on beaches in Hawaii, Mexico, Florida, and all around the Caribbean, all of the MIBs he’s picked up have been washed up on Texas’s barrier island beaches. At this point, Mike says he has walked almost every accessible inch of the Lone Star State’s 400 miles of coastline.
When he’s on the Gulf Coast, Mike prefers to search at remote and hard-to-reach beaches. “The more remote and the less people, the better the chance of finding an elusive MIB.”
Mike’s two favorite South Texas beaches are South Beach on Padre Island National Seashore and the beaches of San José Island, known locally as St. Jo. South Beach is 60 miles of beach that you can actually drive a car on—as long as you have four-wheel drive and you keep your eyes on the tides.
Mike Ley, South Padre National Seashore,Mike’s collection of MIBs
St. Jo is a 24-mile island privately owned by the Bass family (of Bass Pro Shops). The beach is open to the public and is accessible by a commercial ferry boat leaving from Port Aransas, Texas, throughout the day. “I take the first ferry over and beachcomb as far down island as I can and still make it back to catch the last ferry back,” Mike says. Be warned, though! Don’t miss the last ferry, as Mike nearly did one time when the tides turned the sand so soft he had to carry his bike back to the ferry. “If you miss the 6 pm ferry you are staying the night and there is NOTHING over there except cattle, coyotes, raccoons, and snakes,” Mike warns.
Mike says a well-sealed bottle, though still fragile, is one of the world’s most seaworthy objects. “They can bob safely and survive deadly storms and hurricanes that would sink great ships,” Mike explains. “Ever since humans have had the ability to write messages and had bottles to put them in, there have been MIBs dropped into the sea.”
These messages can tell tales of all different kinds, from lost ships, shipwrecked sailors, romantic declarations and farewells, students studying ocean currents, or just a friendly greeting from a vacationer hoping their message will be found by a new friend. These MIBs were also used in the 16th century by Queen Elizabeth I, and Ben Franklin used them in the mid 1700s to establish a basic knowledge of ocean currents still used by scientists and oceanographers today. “MIBs are truly a timeless way to send a message.”
MIBs can float on ocean currents very briefly or for many, many years. It all depends on the right wind and storm conditions, along with the possibility that they get caught on debris. “There is no way to accurately predict exactly where a bottle might travel and how long it will take to land on a beach somewhere,” says Mike. “That is also part of the mystery and why finding an MIB is so intriguing to me.”
Though Mike often beachcombs by himself, he likes it best when his wife Sandy comes along, even though they’re doing different things. “She will drop me off in a good-looking area and then drive down beach a couple miles and park, read a book, or just enjoy sitting on the beach. When I get back, I can get a rest, snack, drink, unload my loot, and then repeat the process. I can cover 15 to 20 miles of beach in a day with this method.”
Mike is a morning person and adores sunrises, so he loves to get to the beach as early as possible, before anyone else is there. In the case of MIBs, Mike says the early bird does usually get the worm—but he loves beachcombing so much that he’ll go whenever his schedule allows.
Although Mike treasures all of his messages in bottles, he has three favorites that all have unique and fun stories.
The de Mol, St. Jo Island
The second MIB Mike ever found, this bottle washed up on St. Jo Island on April 20, 2012. The handwritten note had latitude and longitude from its origin and an email address, along with the title “Bottle #72.” Mike emailed and immediately received a response from Linda de Mol, a Dutch woman. Linda told Mike the bottle was one of 105 that she and her family from Holland had launched while crossing the Atlantic in their sailboat. This specific one was dropped between Cape Verde Islands and Guinea (west coast of Africa) and was the first one that had been found on the U.S. coastline. Upon getting to know her, Mike realized that Linda’s 9-year-old daughter was the one who came up with the idea to drop the bottles, wanting something to entertain her during their 1.5-year voyage from the Netherlands to Africa to South America to Boston.
The Jereczek, South Beach of Padre Island National Seashore
Mike found this on South Beach on January 16, 2015. The neatly handwritten note came from Mali Jereczek, a high school junior from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The inspiring note detailed the student’s lifelong goals, along with wishing the finder a life of love and happiness. In Green Bay fashion, the note ended with “Go Packers.” A Packers fan himself, Mike knew he needed to get in contact with the sender. Thankfully, the note contained an email address and Mike immediately messaged Mali’s family. While vacationing in Puerto Rico, Mali and her mother Julie visited the sailing and research vessel Cramer and were helped by the captain to seal and launch their bottles. Mike has met Mali and Julie in person, and he’s watched as Mali has gone on to become a star volleyball player and student of medicine, already accomplishing many of the goals she detailed in her note.
The Wysocki, St. Jo Island
Mike found this bottle on St. Jo on March 10, 2018. The handwritten note inside said it had been launched from the Carnival Cruise Ship Valor just two months earlier. The note said that there was a reward waiting for the person who found the bottle. After sending an email, Mike was immediately contacted by Marty Wysocki, a geologist working for an oil company in Houston. He explained that he and his wife Vicky were on a cruise to Cozumel (off the east coast of Mexico) with a couple dozen family and friends to celebrate their 35th anniversary. With typical Texan hospitality, Marty invited Mike to visit and meet him and his family. Mike and his wife accepted the invitation, and they were treated to a delicious meal, a tour of Houston, and a lasting friendship. Though Marty eventually gifted Mike with “Texas Goodies,” the best reward was making a connection and friendship with two strangers.
When asked what his friends and family think about his collection, Mike responds as many passionate beachcombers do. “As with any hobby or passion, some are VERY interested and some have NO interest,” laughs Mike. “But the interested ones are impressed with the number of MIBs we have found and the connections and friends we have made through them. A couple of my MIB finds were written up in the local papers.” Mike now displays all of his messages in bottles in a shelf in his home office. Though he keeps all of his MIBs, he likes to share his other found treasures like sea glass and sea beans with friends and family.
In his time on the Gulf, Mike has found a huge four-foot-diameter marking buoy and a joint U.S.-Mexico oceanographic tracking buoy, and he has even witnessed a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle coming onto the shore to nest. “We were beachcombing on South Beach at PINS when the turtle came up on the beach.” Mike says. “After notifying the turtle patrol, we were able to help collect the 110 eggs she laid. All the eggs from nesting turtles in Texas are collected, hatched, and the hatchlings are released under controlled conditions to maximize the success and survival rate.”
When asked what’s on his bucket list, Mike jokes, “I would love to find an MIB that is incredibly old or full of money!” Mike says his passion for searching for MIBs is one of the biggest joys in his life. “All our MIBs are unique, special, and treasured beach finds,” he says. Each one comes accompanied by amazing stories and cherished memories, and Mike thinks he could write a whole book just about the ten that he’s found. He says he has launched two different MIBs from cruise ships that have not been found…yet.
“So, the next time you are out to sea consider launching an MIB,” Mike says. “You just may find a new friend.” For those of us who want to try sending out MIBs of our own, Mike has the following advice:
- Never use a plastic bottle. Glass wine bottles are perfect vessels, and colored ones will help prevent fading of your message.
- Seal the bottle tightly with an undamaged cork. If you plan ahead, you can melt candle wax over the cork to make it even more waterproof.
- Write the message clearly, and include a means of contact information like an email or phone number. Writing in dark pencil is preferable to ink.
- Roll the message tightly, writing on the inside, and tie it with thread or string to make it easy to remove from the bottle without tearing it in case it gets damp.
“And then address it to Texas,” says Mike. “I’ll be waiting and looking for your message. LOL!”
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2021 issue.