For those of us who go to the beach solely to work on our tans, it seems crazy that there are people who go just to walk for miles. These people scan long stretches of beach with metal detectors and shovels in hopes of uncovering something valuable. It’s grueling, sweaty work, but what keeps them motivated is the possibility that somewhere under their feet is a history-making treasure, just waiting to be found. 

Infuriatingly for these treasure-hunters, however, sometimes finding something valuable is as simple as an impromptu stroll on the beach. And as the Illman family found out for themselves, all it takes is a sharp eye and a little luck to discover something truly special…  

Tonya and Kym Illman are photographers hailing from the Western Australian towns of Lancelin and Perth. They have traveled all over the world with their cameras in search of unique stories, never knowing that the real story was right there at the beach.

Because what began as an average drive on the sand turned into a life and history-changing situation when the Illman’s car got stuck. With nothing left to do but wait for assistance, they decided to take a stroll…

On that morning of January 21st, 2018, Tonya noticed how much trash was littered across the beach, so she decided to do a good deed and collect some of the garbage. As she reached down, however, something glinted and caught her eye. 

It was a bottle, and at first, it seemed like regular litter. “I picked it up, thinking it might look nice on display in my home,” Tonya said. What started as a vague idea turned into something else when she showed the bottle to her son’s girlfriend, Bree.

When Bree inspected the bottle, she saw something through its thick glass. She initially thought it was an old cigarette…until she turned the bottle over and the object fell out. When she picked it up, she could tell it was a tightly rolled-up paper.

It was soggy and tied up with a string. The Illmans wrestled with whether or not they should unfurl the message. “There was a lot of anticipation among the party as to what the ‘message in a bottle’ might say,” Bree said. 

So, they formed a plan. They would slowly and carefully dry the note out in the oven. They waited while the paper dried, and when it was finally done, they gathered to unfurl the mysterious note.  

The paper measured about 8 inches by 6 inches, and some of the writing was handwritten while the rest was printed ink. Most notably, everything was in German. Thanks to Kym, however, they were able to translate a few key points of the message. 

“We could not see the handwritten ink at that point but saw a printed message that asked the reader to contact the German consulate when they found the note,” Kym said. The other parts Kym deciphered were even stranger.

For instance, the note had apparently been flung off the boat for research purposes. The instructions told whoever found the note to record the exact time and location of its discovery before returning it to a German embassy. 

When the paper was completely dried out, the handwritten portion of the note was more legible. The family could easily decipher the day and month the message had been flung off the boat — June 12th — but the year remained too weathered by age to see. 

The last thing Kym could decipher was that the ship’s name contained the letters “a-u-l-a.” His first instinct was that it was called “Paula,” but he couldn’t know for sure without some help.

The Illman’s reached out to the Western Australian Museum’s department of Maritime Archaeology. They hoped Dr. Ross Anderson, assistant curator of the department, would help fill in the blanks left by the message, including what it meant and how it ended up in their hands. 

He was able to confirm Kym’s theory about the ship’s name. It was, indeed, named Paula, according to records from 1883. From there, the story of the message in the bottle slowly started to unravel.

Paula was a sailing ship built in Germany. Her crew was, unsurprisingly, comprised of researchers studying ocean currents, and they experimented by dropping message-filled bottles into the sea. Though they dropped thousands of bottles, only one person reported finding both the message and the bottle…

Tonya was the first known person to discover both intact. Amazed, Anderson managed to get his hands on a rare piece of history. “Incredibly, an archival search found Paula’s original meteorological journal,” Anderson said. One entry in particular stood out.

There was an entry made by the captain on June 12th, 1886, recording a bottle having been tossed overboard. “The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message,” Anderson said. And that wasn’t the only similarity. 

The handwriting in the book also corresponded to that in the note, confirming the note’s validity. Incredibly, it was right underneath everyone’s noses for over one hundred years. Despite this confirmation, the story definitely had its fair share of naysayers. 

Kym said himself how far-fetched the story sounds. “To me it seems unbelievable that this bottle could have stayed in these dunes, without a cap on it, with that scroll intact for that many years,” he admitted. This disbelief was mirrored by others as well.

Radio host Basil Zempilas expressed doubt that the message is real, citing Kym’s marketing background as a reason for suspicion. It’s likely, he claims, that “Kym bought [the bottle] in his travels overseas, and he brought it back and said, ‘look what we’ve discovered,’” Zempilas said.

Though he understood the skepticism of the story, Kym drove home a very important point about the bottle. “I can’t possibly pull the wool over two German national agencies [and] the WA Museum,” he said. It’s true that these respected agencies and museums made their own opinions clear. 

In fact, even the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany officially declared the message as genuine. Anderson pointed out that the bottle’s thick glass and narrow neck protected the message from the elements. It’s definitely impressive, and Anderson wasn’t the only one amazed by the message’s survival.

The Guinness World Records named it the world’s “oldest message in a bottle.” Tonya once walked on the sand totally unaware of the history lying beneath her feet, but now she understands how special her discovery is. “This has been the most remarkable event in my life,” Tonya said.

Unbeknownst to Tonya, a few thousand miles away, a British native was digging up a special bottle of his own. Coincidentally, he, too, found the bottle while bending down to pick up some trash.

It started when a man named Nick Crooks brought along his two boys to a beach cleanup effort near his home town. The father of two figured it was a great chance to show his children how important taking care of the environment was.

Stanbury Beach was where the three started their efforts. They, along with dozens of other volunteers, made their way down the coastline bagging up the trash. Nick’s eight-year-old son, Noah, was scooping up plastic bottles, and he saw one that stood out.

It was an empty green Sprite bottle resting on its side, but it looked like it had something stuffed inside. Noah called his dad and brother over before opening it up. The three of them stared down in shock at what came out.

It was a perfectly intact handwritten letter! It was from a 10-year-old girl named Jacquie Chmilar, and she left her parents’ contact info at the very bottom for whoever found it. She ended the letter with, “If found, call or email please.” Noah knew what to do.

As soon as Noah and his father got back home, they excitedly sent an email to the address on the letter and awaited a response. It didn’t take long for one to roll in, and the two were more than surprised at what Jacquie had to say.

Jacquie lived in Canada, which meant the note she wrote traveled over 2,100 miles. When Jacquie’s mother first read the email from Noah and his father, she thought it was a joke. She couldn’t believe someone actually found the message.

Apparently, the young girl was visiting her grandparents in Newfoundland, Canada, and her grandfather thought it’d be a fun idea to put a message in a bottle and toss it in the ocean, hoping it one day reached land somewhere else.

For six months, Jacquie and her grandparents wondered if the message was ever going to reach someone. They eventually figured it was lost for good, but that was when Noah responded.

Noah and Jacquie started writing letters back and forth to each other and developed a friendship. He learned Jacquie actually lived in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Amazingly, that also wasn’t the only bottle Jacquie tossed into the ocean six months earlier.

She actually threw three bottles in, and a second one was found at the Widemouth Beach in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Incredibly, this second bottle was found by a nine-year-old girl only seven days before Noah’s discovery.

This second bottle traveled 2,137 miles before the waves carried it to the shoreline. When the story of the bottles got out, it made international news. Noah’s father hoped the story would inspire more people to clean up the ocean.

“I think lots more people should do it because you just see these massive piles of rubbish,” the father said. As for Noah and his new pen-pal friend, they planned on keeping in touch via email, and one day the families hoped to meet each other.

Jacquie’s message led to a new-found friendship. Perhaps she was inspired to pen her letters after another story of a message in a bottle hit headlines a year earlier. The writer of this letter, however, was making a desperate plea for help.

See, in September of 2017, people of the Florida coast waited in fear for destruction to come their way. There was a dark sky, strong gusts of wind, and a chill in the air…

That’s because Irma was ready to destroy. The hurricane had already taken her toll on the northeast Caribbean and was headed to the Sunshine State, which wasn’t looking all that sunny.

While everyone fled to safety, two people headed directly towards the impending peril: a young couple from Melbourne, Florida. Their names were Nikki Snow and Allen Gibson, and they were ready to chase some storms.

Around 3 pm on September 20th, Nikki and Allen were taking pictures on the beach and looking out to sea, feeling the rush of the approaching storm. But as the winds grew, they realized they had walked way too far and began to return to higher ground.

Running as fast as they could, they made their way back up the shore. But just before they left the beach they stumbled across something out of place. It caught their eye — and they couldn’t ignore it.

A dark green wine bottle stuck out from the sand. It could have been sheer curiosity or a desire to keep the beach clean, but the young lovers decided to inspect it. That’s when they noticed it wasn’t a piece of trash at all.

Much to their surprise, the bottle not only had a cork in it but a piece of paper as well. Had they stumbled upon a real-life message in the bottle?

Back at home in Melbourne, while hunkering down from Hurricane Irma as it passed through, Nikki and Allen extricated the letter, eager to see what it might say. There was only one problem: they couldn’t read it.

Unfortunately, the letter inside was written in Spanish, and neither Nikki’s nor Allen’s high school language classes could help them comprehend the scribbles on the pages. However, they knew someone who would.

Allen actually worked as a line cook at a Cuban restaurant named El Ambia Cubano — a place full of Cuban coworkers whose mother tongue was Spanish. Surely someone there could translate the message…

Luckily, Allen’s bilingual kitchen manager, Alfredo Hernandez Froment, was happy to take a crack at it. As it turned out, the letter was a call for help, but not the kind that one would expect from a message in a bottle.

It was written by a woman, and it talked about heartbreak and the struggle to overcome mounting obstacles. This girl was trying to get her life and her career together, and Alfredo instantly identified with it.

Additionally, Alfredo discovered who the sender was: a young woman living on a tropical island, desperately hoping to improve her life. As she wrote, she poured her struggles into her letter addressed to “mother.”

This mystery woman had poured her heart out, rolled up her emotions and stuffed them into a bottle, sealed it with her wishes and cast it into the ocean. It was never meant to be read, but it was a good thing it was…

See, that the bottle had been swept up by currents, traveled thousands of miles without breaking, was dragged through a hurricane and eventually slammed onto that Florida beach was a miracle in and of itself. Two worlds were about to collide.

Far south, in Havana, Cuba, 25-year-old Chila Lynn was feeling trapped. An R&B singer and pianist, she had found success at a young age as the Spanish singing voice for the lead princess Tiana in the dubbed version of The Princess and the Frog.

Not only was she a talented voice actress, she also produced an album in 2012 titled Real Woman. Since then, however, she felt that despite her efforts, her music career had fallen flat, and she was unable to put it back into motion.

Chila’s successes were simply not enough for her, as she was hoping to take her talents internationally. She wanted respect, and she wanted her songs to be heard — so badly that she took it up with a higher power.

“I’ve had many obstacles, my heart has been broken a ton of times,” the letter read. “I have lost the roof over my head and had almost lost my way, but I’m trying to get back my house, my direction, and my progress.”

To the intended recipient of her pained letter, Chila wrote, “I’m an artist, you know, since I opened my eyes, music lives in me.” Chila took her note, placed it inside a wine bottle, and took it to pray at the church of Our Lady of Regla.

In Cuba, ancient Yoruban religion brought by West African slaves has blended with Spanish Catholic beliefs to create a practice called Santería. Those who follow it believe in a system of “Orishas.”

Orishas are godly spirits that have taken a human form. Those who practice Santería have often found a counterpart in Christianity represented by each Orisha, and Chila had someone specific in mind.

The Orisha Yemayá is considered the mother of all creation and all other deities. She is associated with the Virgin Mary. She is a goddess of the seas, and a protector of women, a comforting mother figure.

While Allen’s coworker Alfredo was no Orisha, he had defected from Cuba in 1994 and played music. Not only did he share a nationality and language with Chila, they even had a similar background and interests.

Somehow he managed to find Chila Lynn’s email, and he reached out to the singer to let her know that he had found her message and wanted to help her achieve her dreams by supporting her career.

At first, when she read his message, rather than being overjoyed or excited, she got annoyed. She thought that someone in Cuba was playing a cruel prank on her. No way her message made it all the way to Florida… right?

However, once she found out that Alfredo meant everything he said, Chila was over the moon. Finally, somebody was on her side, even though it was a stranger who lived thousands of miles away.

They kept in touch, and he made sure to listen to her music and was deeply impressed with her work, calling her a “talented and dedicated artist.” In 2017, she worked hard to release an international album: Amor Y Miel (love and honey).

Sadly, By the time Nikki and Allen found the message in a bottle, Chila didn’t have the record deal anymore, but that didn’t deter her. Alfredo turned to his own connections to see if they could help this young woman.

Knowing Chila’s options were limited in Cuba, Alfredo wanted to get her some performing gigs in the United States. It almost seemed too good to be true, and Chila wondered why this stranger would help her out like this.

For Alfredo, helping this young singer tour in the U.S. was not at all a business deal, nor did he seek any personal gain. He did it with the utmost devotion, feeling that the Virgin Mary was asking him personally to help this woman.

As a matter of fact, the entire journey of the bottled message and the experience of finding a kindred spirit across the ocean had strengthened both of their faiths. This was no coincidence — this was Yemayá’s work.

“I told Chila, the virgin put this letter in my hand for a reason,” Alfredo said. Coincidentally, Chila had been thinking of expanding her career to the U.S. before she sent out her prayer. Would her dreams finally come true?

As of March 2019, there were no official reports of Chila performing in the United States, yet after her message was found, she had reportedly assembled a band and was prepared to tour in the U.S. when the opportunity arose.

Still, all parties involved in the saga, including Nikki and Allen, were absolutely floored with what transpired. “I think it’s pretty incredible. Nine times out of ten you’re never going to know who it is,” Nikki said. “But we found the person. We were able to contact her.”

So where is the letter now? Alfredo framed it and hung it on the wall of his restaurant, where it was kept company by a shrine to the Virgin. While it hadn’t been intended for human eyes, he believed it was brought along by a higher power. One thing is certain: the forces that brought the two together were anything but ordinary.