Bottle Collecting

By Jeanne Bear Sleeper

Bottle collecting is an equal opportunity underwater activity for fresh and saltwater divers. Virtually every body of water used for transportation of goods or recreational activities, such as boating and swimming, has been used as a trash dumping site. From coins and tokens falling out of swimsuit pockets to steamship china thrown overboard with the trash to a Chinese miners sake bottle to a fishermans soda bottle to a pioneers medicine bottle, there is treasure to be found.

Entry level collecting is as simple as fanning the sand away and gently picking up a treasure that is semi-exposed on the bottom. Advanced bottle collecting is low visibility, tree branch littered, mud bottom, cold and/or moving water diving. Serious collectors tend to be very experienced, advanced divers comfortable in cold water, currents and almost no visibility, especially after they stir up the bottom! They have excellent compass, knot tying and liftbag skills. Successful bottle collectors are also willing to do research that may take more time than the diving itself.

Where To Look

Intuition, common sense and an interest in history are your best guides when deciding where to search. Mentally transport yourself back in time and think about how bottles ended up in the water and where that would have happened. If you are in the area, a visit to the local newspaper can be revealing. Look at the ads for the addresses of old resorts, pier locations or boat routes and at community stories about beach activities. Here are some areas where you may hit pay dirt:

  • The ruins of cabins or commercial buildings
  • Broken pier pilings or dock parts
  • Dirt roads going to the waters edge that could have been trash dump points, swimming or fishing areas
  • Building foundation ruins
  • Narrows where horse drawn wagons could have crossed the river
  • Old swimming beaches or cliffs that have been used for diving
  • Former port areas
  • Streams and rivers next to railroad tracks or old mining areas
  • Lakes that had ferry crossings or party tour boats
  • Park benches (past or current) at the waters edge

When choosing a place to collect, be aware that some underwater artifacts are protected by various city, county, state and federal agencies. As a rule of thumb, do not take anything from national or state parks or waters controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Ask permission to dive in private lakes or from private land. If you find items that are 100 years or more old, they may be protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Who owns what and what can be collected where is well beyond the scope of this article. If in doubt, dont.

Increase Your Odds


Once you have identified a likely spot to find underwater treasure, follow the tips listed at left to increase your odds of picking up a prize. Remember that items sink through the sand over time, until they hit a solid surface, such as bedrock. If you are up to your elbows in bottom mud, you are not likely to recover treasure without the use of dredges and siphons. Winter storms and shifting sand can expose bottles, rings and marine artifacts that were previously too deep to find with a simple fanning technique. So, bottle collecting can be better in the off-season.

Diving Equipment

Collecting underwater is usually an advanced dive in more challenging conditions. All the usual equipment and skills employed on a cold, current, low visibility search and recovery dive apply.

Streamlined equipment, including compass, two lights, illuminated gauges, extra heavy gloves, knife with edges for cutting, sawing and prying and collection bags should be considered for this type of diving. Since each dive site is unique, you and your buddy need to assess the appropriate equipment and dive techniques.

Collection bags could be standard net bags or add a small, cloth, zippered bag for tiny treasures. Larger fragile bottles could be brought to the surface in plastic containers with snap-on lids. Prepare the plastic container for collecting by drilling a small hole near the lip and in the lid, so they can be laced together. If its buoyancy bothers you, add a small weight inside the container. If you carry digging tools in your net bag, remember, fragile bottles cannot go in the same bag.

Many bottle collectors use a long rod to probe soft bottom areas. If you use a probe, remember to attach a lanyard and clip;if you put it down on the bottom, it will probably disappear.


Bottle collecting can be fun and rewarding. Valuable black glass bottles dating to the 1850s can be found in Eastern Seaboard lakes; 1880s rounded bottom torpedo bottles are found throughout the west and bring handsome prices; 1920s and 30s Coca Cola bottles have value to serious collectors or those who like to own a piece of history. Whether you accidentally find a bottle or spend many weekends researching and diving, bottle collecting is a nice way to keep in touch with bygone eras. If you are interested in learning more about the details of bottle collecting or the value of various bottles, several reference books are listed in our sidebar. If you are only going to purchase one book, buy The Sport Divers Guide to Sunken Treasure by David Finnern. This 150 page, easy to read book is packed with practical, hard-learned, how-to tips by a gentleman who has spent a lot of time underwater in pursuit of treasures.