Williams had no idea what to make of it. “I thought maybe it was a street sign or maybe a box,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “The word looked like it had been chiseled into the plank.” Always intrigued by the mysteries of the ocean and what it spews onto the beach, she took the plank home, plopped it in her backyard, then promptly forgot about it.
Weeks passed. Then she saw another one, nestled in the sands of a nearby cove — same shape, same strange rubber-like texture, same word. It called to her: Tjipetir, Tjipetir, Tjipetir. She took to Google and only found mention of some faraway Indonesian plantation that went by the same name. What did it mean? “I was absolutely fascinated by it,” she said. “And I knew this was a story that was only just beginning.”
Those twin discoveries would ignite a years-long, continent-wide quest to discover the murky origins of floating blocks washed up on beaches in Western Europe — a quest that would eventually turn up a tale of German submarines, World War I conquests and whispers of the Titanic.
It took years for Williams to unravel the mystery. The first clue came soon after the initial find. It was an old black-and-white photograph. Snapped in the Indonesian province of West Java in the early 1900s, according to Williams, it showed a pile of the planks baking in the sun beside a young boy. The name of that plantation? Tjipetir. The farm cultivated the percha tree, which produces a rubber-like substance called gutta percha, which once served as a precursor to plastic. Used in items from tooth fillings to golf balls to underwater cables, the material exhibits incredible resiliency when subjected to water.
Not knowing what else to do, Williams launched a Facebook page entitled “Tjipetir Mystery” and hoped some sort of answer would eventually find her.
Meanwhile, scores of Europeans were bending down to find the planks along the beaches of Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom. “As I was walking out in the rare November sun, I was gathering drift wood and spotted a tablet,” one United Kingdom resident wrote. “My toe tipped it over to reveal the word, ‘Tjipetir.’ I knew I had found something special. Upon return to town, appearance disheveled with delight, Google revealed the mystery wrapped around this giant erasure.”
Those Google searches ultimately led them to Williams. The amateur sleuths exchanged rumor and gossip over the planks. One popular theory involved the Titanic, and the Daily Mail contributed to the suspicion. “There is a ship that went down off the Isle of Scilly 100 years ago that we think it could be” from, conservationist Steve Trewhella told the British paper. “Some people have speculated that it could be from the Titanic, which was carrying this product when it sank.”
The Titanic had indeed been carrying gutta percha — 100 units of it. But it soon became clear that whatever vessel spilled the substance into the ocean had been carrying significantly more than just 100 slabs of it. Every day, it seemed, another person turned up another Tjipetir plank: a French surfer, a Dutchman in a winter hat, a bearded Spaniard on a craggy shore.
“People were finding the planks everywhere,” Williams recalled.
Then, in 2013, two people joined the search, adding a pivotal piece of information. According to the BBC, which first reported the story, the sleuths passed along word of a Japanese vessel called the Miyazaki Maru, which had carried hundreds, if not thousands, of planks of gutta percha.
On May 31, 1917, en route to London with a full load of passengers and cargo, a German U-88 submarine attacked the boat, according to the Web site, Wreck Site. It sank 150 miles west of the Scilly Isles. Eight people aboard died.
“Every piece of figuring this out was like a jigsaw piece,” Williams said. “Various people started providing clues to the names of the ships and what happened.”
This latest theory drew the attention of a British official, who also concluded that the mysterious planks came from that Japanese vessel. “When we are made aware of wreckage, we conduct research to find the owner,” Alison Kentuck, who administers salvage laws, told the BBC. “We look at the age of the items, where they could have come from and examine any markings. Our findings with these particular items pointed toward that particular wreck.”
It’s unclear how far the tablets have floated. Reported discoveries haven’t gone beyond Europe — yet. But “based on the findings so far, they are clearly being fed into the hemispheric ocean circulation,” surmised oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. “It only takes 25 years for flotsam to go around the world, and they’ve probably been around long enough to go around the world three times.”
Williams still thinks there’s more to find out. She wants to know about the plantation that spawned them, and more of what happened to those men who lost their lives aboard the Japanese Miyazaki Maru. So, she told The Post, what she calls the “Tjipetir Mystery” isn’t going anywhere.
“It’s a fascinating story,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”