Why Are 100-year-old Blocks Washing Up on European Beaches?

Illustration for article titled Why Are 100-year-old Blocks Washing Up on European Beaches?

Things that typically emerge from the ocean: cigarette butts, clumps of seaweed, maybe a piece of sea glass. But Cornwall, England resident Tracey Williams' beach strolls took a turn for the weird when she found a plank made from a gutta percha, a rubber-like substance. The word "Tjipetir" was carved into it.


Finding one such object would be enough to titillate any curious beachcomber. But when she found a second plank, nearly identical to the first, Williams knew she had a genuine mystery on her hands; after she started doing research and set up a Facebook page to gather more information, she realized the planks weren't only washing up in Southern England — they were making appearances on beaches in at least seven countries all over Western Europe.

According to the Washington Post:

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.


Once Williams started making contact with others who'd become drawn into what she's dubbed "the Tjipetir mystery," she started to piece together various theories about where the planks had come from. The most romantic possibility — the Titanic — was ruled out; though it did have gutta percha aboard, more planks have been found than the doomed ship was actually carrying in total.

A real breakthrough came last year, per the Post:

According to the BBC, which first reported the story, sleuths [investigating the findings] 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. This latest theory drew the attention of a British official, who also concluded that the mysterious planks came from that Japanese vessel

Illustration for article titled Why Are 100-year-old Blocks Washing Up on European Beaches?

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.


Top image and map of plank discovery sites via the Washington Post.

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Chris Paine

Translation: "Croatoan"