He was taking the temperature of the sea at 4 am when he found a message in a bottle Australian way of life

„This bottle contains a small part of our parents,” began the message on the bottle. „If you find this bottle washed up somewhere … please put it out once more on its journey.”

Written by the two loving sons of a seafaring couple, their last wish is for their ashes to be interred so they can go to a final farewell together. Kevin and Nigel Graham gave their parents a fitting trip by launching several bottles from places around the world where their parents lived at different times.

Guy Dunstan isn't surprised to find a bottle of Grahams. He measures the temperature of the sea with a meat thermometer at Manly Beach every morning at 4am. He then spends about an hour chalking the numbers into a small mural on a 1m-high concrete drainage pillar that juts out from the beach wall. „A perfect canvas,” he says. This is a free social service he has been doing for the past two and a half years.

Guy Dunstan says the concrete drainage pillar jutting out from the beach wall is the 'perfect canvas' for his daily temperature art. Photo: The Guardian

Dunstan knew there was no point in throwing the bottle back into the ocean. The request is to „set it once more on its journey.” He made sure that was what happened.

After contacting the family, Dunstan discovered that the bottle, floating seven nautical miles (13 km) off the coast of Bundy, had been partially unsuccessful in its search. To increase the odds of a great adventure, he sought expert advice on favorable times and tides. Then – with the help of a friend – he went out past the heads of Sydney Harbor and fired the glass bottle into the current towards the Pacific.

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Dunstan documented the bottle's journey through a series of Instagram posts she makes about her daily temperature art — and the community reaction gave the Graham family an unexpected, healing gift. „Seeing our parents' names typed into messages by complete strangers on the other side of the world was incredibly heartwarming,” says Kevin Graham.

„We couldn't have wished for a better guardian of our parents, not only for the care that went into caring for them, but also the emotional investment she showed in finding a way to make their journey forward easier.”

During the pandemic, when a friend from the local swim team asked him to fill in for support, Dunstan began doing „the numbers.” Back then, raising the temperature was a two-minute job. The ongoing „advantage” now takes longer, he says, „by choice”.

Guy Dunstan's temperature test at Manly Beach helps early birds decide whether or not to wear a wetsuit for a swim. Photo: Matthew Smeal/The Guardian

This unpaid act of kindness is appreciated by the hundreds of early risers (first show up to 5.30am) who bathe daily in all weathers. Many swim the 1500 meters from Manly Beach to Cabbage Tree Bay. The year-round spectacle calls for swimmers to wear wetsuits — or strap themselves in.

Dunstan's commitment goes back to a simple philosophy: You get what you put in.

Dunstan works in that whisperless time between the dead of night and the stirring dawn, when the day is still wondering what mood it is in. The glowing beam of his headlamp – a guiding light, really – pierces the luscious darkness as I join him. His 889th trip.

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Between the roars of the sandblasting tractor, he draws a map. Some have questioned why the normally bold numbers have shrunk of late. It depends on the idea, he says, which has evolved into an image over time, and there's only so much room to work with. He answers those questions by showing today's temperature on the optometrist's eye chart. With a mischievous smile he says: „They like a little puzzle.”

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Tools of the trade. Guy Dunstan's daily paintings are a talking point among the locals who gather at the southern end of the beach. Photo: The Guardian

By 5.15am his 24-hour mural was complete. By popular local demand, Dunstan uploads it to his Instagram @temperature_guy_manly With the caption: “#889 Eye Exam”.

„Going to the ocean in the morning is a strong part of my routine,” says local swimmer Sally Stobo. „You can tell all the care that goes into doing the numbers. It's like getting a warm hug.

„It's not just about the swim, it's about the community and grabbing a coffee with friends afterwards,” he says. „We know it takes a lot of energy and early hours. We all care about Kai.

People often wonder why Dunstan works voluntarily and alone in the dark every day. She says the answer is pinned on her Instagram: „So every morning you know at least one person deeply respects and cares for you.”

The 69-year-old, who fell from the top rungs of the corporate ladder to homelessness, knows all too well how fortunes can turn. A decade ago, he took a simple approach to life and brought it back on track. But in recent years, the ghosts of past traumas returned and life fell apart again. „The numbers were all I had. They connected me to the community,” he says.

One day, that link was broken when the surf club got a new digital temperature display. Dunstan stopped chalking up his arty analog numbers, figuring he no longer needed to. Society had other ideas. More than 1000 messages were sent asking him to come back.

Although Dunstan insists he is not an artist, his daily paintings are a much-loved talking point among the locals who gather at the southern end of the beach. It's a „good luck charm” for ocean swimming marathon entrants, Jimmy Barnes (after his open-heart surgery) or „Thanks for Coming” to Taylor SwiftPicture messages – worked around sea temperatures – have become part of Manly swimmers' lives.

Guy Dunstan started doing 'the numbers' during the pandemic when a friend from the local swimming group asked him to fill in for the pros. Photo: Matthew Smeal/The Guardian

Agitated fans in person to help out, including the music director (and the Tik Tok sensation). Bailey's PickleAustralian Ironman Champion Kendrick Lewis and actor Freya Dingley.

Some mornings were so cold, wet and windy that the physical activity of doing the numbers was almost impossible, says Dunstan. “At those times you can feel lonely. But I never once woke up and thought 'I don't want to do this'.

In the coming months, Dunstan will reach the milestone of 1000 mornings. He's already planning the mural, which will be a „thank you” for all the encouraging messages he's received, sometimes leaving him feeling alone and unwanted.

His millennial journey would not be his last. „It's about making small deposits and it delivers the goods,” he says. There's always someone who needs a loving hug, so he keeps doing the numbers until he can't. „It's a little thing.”

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