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Dean Bumpus, 89; Used 200,000 Bottles to Track Ocean Currents


For centuries people have launched bottles into the seas for sentimental reasons--to preserve a paean to lost love, perhaps, or to feed a basic human desire to touch a soul in a distant land.

Dean Bumpus did it for science--and on a scale that likely has no rival.

To track ocean currents, the scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts pitched tens of thousands of glass vessels into the North Atlantic for 30 years, starting in 1948.

"Break This Bottle," the labels Bumpus affixed to them read.

Inside each was a postcard asking the finder to reply with the date and place the bottle was found. In return, Bumpus sent a 50-cent reward.

Though primitive, Bumpus' methodology enabled him to write a pioneering study of coastal circulation off the Eastern United States.

"His bottle studies are monumental and, according to my studies, released more bottles than anyone," said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle scientist who, as a byproduct of plotting the paths of ocean pollutants, became the country's foremost expert on high seas flotsam. "I greatly admired his work," Ebbesmeyer said.

No one knows exactly how many bottles were set adrift by Bumpus, who died March 14 at his home in Woods Hole after a distinguished 40-year career in oceanography. Known as "Bump" to his colleagues, he was 89.

He once said that during the 1960s alone he or his conscripts flung 165,566 bottles from ships and planes along the East Coast. Ebbesmeyer suspects the total number throughout Bumpus' research well exceeded 200,000.

Many were presumed sunk under the weight of barnacles that may have attached themselves to the bottles on the high seas. Despite such perils, the return rate during the '60s was about 10%--some 16,000 bottles.

Most were found along the 600-mile stretch of the Eastern Seaboard between Cape Hatteras and the tip of Maine. But some washed up in Ireland. One bottle got as far as the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1967, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey dropped one of Bumpus' drifters from the institute's research vessel, Atlantis II, off Gloucester, Mass. It turned up just 20 miles away--four years later.

Another bottle was adrift for 33 years. No. 4653, launched from a research ship in the mid-Atlantic north of Bermuda in 1951, was returned to the institute in 1984 after it was found on a New Jersey beach.

In all those years, Bumpus said, he was "held up" only once--by a hard-bargaining woman in Vero Beach, Fla., who sniffed at his measly reward.

"I have one of your bottles," she wrote. "I collect things of this sort when I find them. I also collect $2 bills. That is what it will take to get the number off this bottle and where I found it."

Another time a man in Canada wrote a poem about one of the drift bottles. Bumpus tracked him down. He lived in a house with a dirt floor strewn with fish bones and other things. In a corner was a battered typewriter where the clam-digger poet had created his simple verse.

He was "one of those fellows who liked to write, but no one would ever accept his stuff," Bumpus said. "Later, I wrote an article about it and I got paid $50 for it. I sent him $25 and he was delighted."

Whenever he got a postcard back, he pondered the many variables that shaped the bottle's journey. If the bottle was found on a beach, for instance, how long did it sit there before someone picked it up? "There are lots of subtleties in how to interpret the 'birth' and 'death' notice without knowing the life in between," said Robert Beardsley, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole research center.

Plotting the route of the bottles, however, led to Bumpus' finding that ocean currents south of Cape Hatteras move in very different patterns from those northward.

"It was his genius," Beardsley said, "to make sense out of something that to us would seem very difficult to interpret."

The result, flotsam specialist Ebbesmeyer said, was "a pivotal data set for studying transatlantic drift," useful to anyone trying to determine the path of an oil spill, for instance, or how certain plant species traveled from the Americas to Europe.

Bumpus was born in Newburyport, Mass. He studied biology at Oberlin College, graduating in 1933. After graduate work at Brown University, he joined the staff of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1937, becoming one of its first year-round employees. He also studied at Harvard College.

In the late 1930s, he helped develop a comprehensive sampler of plankton life at the Georges Bank fishing ground off the Massachusetts coast. It continues to yield important findings today.

During World War II, he was among a group of Woods Hole scientists who taught Navy submariners "how to play hide and seek" by using the temperature and density gradients of the water to avoid acoustic detection by enemy vessels.

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