Saturday, December 18, 2010

Summary Data

I'm getting a lot of requests for basic background on the Nikumaroro Hypothesis, so here it is, derived from a handout I used during a recent talk to the Explorers Club here in Washington DC.


What Happened to Amelia Earhart? The Case for Nikumaroro

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2nd 1937. TIGHAR hypothesizes that they landed and died on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, an uninhabited island in what is now the Phoenix Islands Protected Area of the Republic of Kiribati. Detailed documentation of our basis for the Nikumaroro Hypothesis is found in two books published by TIGHAR members , and on TIGHAR’s worldwide web site . I’ve also published a novel that imagines the circumstances surrounding the discovery of what may have been Earhart’s bones . I have prepared this short paper to summarize the reasons we believe we are right about Earhart’s fate. Here they are:

1. In the last radio transmission that all authorities agree came from Earhart, she said she was flying "on the line 157 337” – this is generally understood to be what is known as a “line of position,” a navigational line oriented 337° (NNW) and 157° (SSE). The strength of the transmission indicated that she was relatively close to Howland Island at that time. She was not understood to say which direction she was flying on the line but U.S. Navy experts, Earhart’s husband George Putnam, and her technical advisor Paul Mantz all agreed that the flight probably proceeded southeastward in the hope of reaching land . Such a line passing through the vicinity of Howland Island also passes within visual range of Nikumaroro.

2. Nikumaroro is much easier to see from the air than Howland Island; it is bigger, tree-covered, and has a brilliant aquamarine lagoon .

3. After her disappearance, over 180 radio messages were received by stations around the Pacific and elsewhere, most of them by professional radio operators, some of them in a voice identified as Earhart’s by operators who had heard her in past transmissions. When the U.S. Navy’s extensive search didn’t reveal anything, the Navy decided they were all mistakes or hoaxes. If even one of these messages was really from Earhart, she had to be on land with a fairly intact airplane capable of generating power for the radio .

4. Radio stations at Wake Island, Midway Island, and Hawaii took radio direction finding (RDF) bearings on six of the transmissions. Four of these bearings crossed in the vicinity of Nikumaroro .

5. The only radio (other than, we suspect, Earhart’s) documented as having been in the Phoenix Islands was in the possession of John William Jones, a coconut plantation supervisor on Hull (now Orona) Island, about 150 miles east of Nikumaroro. Jones’ radio is reliably reported to have been out of order between early June and late August of 1937 .

6. TIGHAR analysis of the whole body of radio messages indicates only two plausible explanations for them. Either an extremely well-informed hoaxer with an undocumented radio was on one of the western Phoenix Islands imitating Earhart’s voice, or Earhart was there .

7. Search plane crews from USS Colorado, flying over Nikumaroro seven days after the disappearance, reported “signs of recent habitation” but, believing the island to be inhabited, concluded that they were not related to Earhart, so the Colorado did not land a search party . The island had not been officially inhabited since 1892.

8. British colonial officers who visited Nikumaroro in October of 1937 to see whether the island could be colonized said they saw evidence suggesting an “overnight bivouac” (camp) .

9. A photograph taken by one of the officers shows an anomaly on the edge of the island’s northwestern reef that looks very much like an airplane’s landing gear

10. Residents of the colony established on Nikumaroro in December of 1938, which lasted until 1963, report aircraft wreckage on the northwestern reef flat and in the lagoon. A US Navy pilot who visited the island during World War II reported local residents using aircraft control cable as a fishing line, which they said came from a plane wreck that had been on the island when they came .

11. TIGHAR has recovered a number of pieces of aircraft wreckage from the remains of the colonial village on Nikumaroro; these appear to have been brought to the village to use in fabricating handicrafts. Some of these are from a B-24, probably one that crashed on Canton Island, some 230 miles to the northeast (people from Nikumaroro worked on Canton after World War II). Other pieces, including aluminum fragments and fragments of plexiglass, do not appear to match a B-24 but are consistent with a Lockheed Electra like Earhart’s .

12. In 1991, TIGHAR recovered parts of two shoes on Nikumaroro, identified by footwear specialists as a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe. The former was identified as a “Blucher-style oxford” dating to the 1930s. Earhart wore such shoes on her flight, though the only example that can be measured in photographs appears to have been smaller than the one found by TIGHAR . Photographic evidence indicates that Earhart had at least three pairs of footgear on the plane, two of them Blucher-style oxfords, and there is documentary evidence suggesting a pair of hiking boots .

13. In 1940, the Nikumaroro colonists found thirteen bones of a human skeleton on the southeast end of the island next to the remains of a campfire with bird and turtle bones. Nearby the remains of a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe were found, together with a sextant box and some small corks on chains. The bones were examined by two medical doctors. One said the bones came from an elderly Polynesian, the other said they were from an adult male of European or mixed race. The bone measurements taken by the second doctor have been analyzed by modern forensic anthropologists, whose studies indicate that they may more likely be those of a woman of European ethnic background, about 5’5” to 5’9” in height. Earhart would have fit this description. The bones have been lost .

14. The sextant box – which has also been lost – is recorded as having had two numbers on it: 1542 and 3500. Recent research has shown that during World War I, the U.S. Navy acquired a large number of nautical sextants, some of which were converted for aviation use. Known sextants acquired by the Navy from the Brandis Instrument Company carried serial numbers ranging from 3227 to 5760, and were assigned Navy numbers 845 through 4705; these numbers were stamped into the boxes as well as the instruments themselves. The numbers on the Nikumaroro sextant box thus suggest that it held a Brandis instrument owned for a time by the U.S. Navy.

15. The second number on the box – 3500 – is also close to the number 3547, which is written on a sextant box held by the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida and is documented to have belonged to Fred Noonan . Fred Noonan is known to have used a nautical sextant as a back up and a photograph of the navigation room aboard a Pan Am clipper shows a box for a Brandis sextant. One of Noonan’s jobs in the 1930s was as a navigator trainer and a photograph of one his students shows a Brandis sextant.

16. In 1946 the late Floyd Kilts, a U.S. Coast Guardsman on duty on Nikumaroro, was told about the bones discovery by a local resident. Other Coast Guardsmen purchased wooden boxes built by the residents, with inlaid pieces of aircraft aluminum .

17. TIGHAR has identified a site on the southeast end of the island (the Seven Site) that closely matches the description given in British colonial records of the bones discovery site. Here we have found the remains of several cooking fires containing bird, fish, and turtle bones. There are also two clusters of giant clam (Tridacna sp.) shells on the site, apparently brought there so their meat could be consumed. Many of the clams in one cluster appear to have been opened by someone who tried to pry them open on the hinge side (as eastern U.S. oysters and some clams are opened); others have been opened by smashing them with rocks . Fishbones from the remains of cooking fires on the site suggest that whoever camped there was unselectively catching mostly rather small reef and lagoon fish, cooking them on the coals, and disposing of their bones in the fires; none of this behavior is consistent with fishing and fish preparation by indigenous Pacific islanders .

18. Finally, we have found a variety of artifacts at the Seven Site. Some of these are clearly of colonial or Coast Guard origin, but others are not . Among the artifacts recovered from the site in 2007 and 2010 are:

a. a broken bottle made by the Owens Illinois Glass company in New Jersey in 1933 containing traces of a substance containing oil and lanolin, probably either a skin cream or hair dressing;

b. a shattered bottle with the word “Mennen” embossed on its side in Art Deco lettering, apparently a 1930s cosmetic container of American origin;

c. a broken glass vessel identified as a small ointment pot;

d. two broken, partially melted bottles identified as dating to before World War II, found in the remains of a cooking fire where it appears they may have been used in attempts to boil water;

e. a U.S. manufactured jackknife, comparable to one carried on the Earhart Electra, that appears to have been taken apart, perhaps to re-use its parts;

f. the pull and slider from a size 06, “auto-lok” Talon brand zipper manufactured in the U.S. sometime between 1933 and 1936;

g. what may be the back of a small broach or pin;

h. small fragments of red material chemically identified as probable cosmetic rouge;

i. two small pieces of thin beveled glass that match the mirror of a known 1930s vintage American woman’s compact.

Earhart is known to have carried a compact which, if it was like others of the period, would have contained rouge. U.S. Coast Guardsmen, island colonists, and British colonial officials are unlikely to have had such items. The apparent cosmetic containers are also more consistent with the presence of a Euroamerican woman on the site than with any of the others known to have used it. Zippers were used extensively by Earhart in her own clothing design, and by her friend Elsa Schiaparelli in designing some of Earhart’s wardrobe. The bottles in the fire suggest an effort to boil or distill drinking water – there is no fresh surface water on Nikumaroro except what can be caught during sporadic rain squalls.

Current Status of Research

TIGHAR conducted its most extensive excavation of the Seven Site in May-June 2010 , and analysis of results is currently underway.

Immediate Need

One thing that has become apparent from our work at the Seven Site is that the site was the scene of some sort of land clearing and construction activity, probably in the late 1940s or 1950s. It is important for us to understand what this activity entailed, since it introduced material (corrugated iron, fiberboard, nails) that confuse and obscure the record of site use during the period when Earhart and Noonan might have been there. People living today in the Solomon Islands, to which the Nikumaroro colonists were relocated in the 1960s, may well be able to advise us about this. There are also likely to be records relevant to the island in the Solomon Islands archives in Honiara, which we have not yet searched. We are urgently seeking financial support for a short (ca. 2-3 week) visit to the Solomon Islands by a small (ca. 4-5 people) team of trained volunteers to conduct both archival research and oral historical interviews. The cost of this project is estimated at US$50,000.00. For information and to contribute, see

For further information or to join the search, please visit, or contact:

• TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie at, or

• Senior Archaeologist Thomas F. King at

Books Related to the Research

• Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, AltaMira Press 2004; see^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759101310

Finding Amelia, Naval Institute Press 2007; see

Thirteen Bones, Dog Ear Press, 2009; see

(or from any bookseller)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Discovery Channel on TIGHAR and Amelia Earhart

So, what did I think of the Discovery show? Well, I thought it was by far the best TV portrait yet of our project, and generally represented it fairly. And I wasn’t as put off by the re-creations as I thought I’d be (Discovery at one point wanted US to do re-creations while in the field; we politely declined, having other things to do).

I do have two beefs:

First, I think it was too bad they made it so much The Ric Gillespie Show. That’s not because Ric doesn’t merit the exposure, and it’s not to say that he didn’t take his lumps. Nor is it to deny that Ric is the one who’s made the project go, all these years, or that he’s the central figure in the search. But one thing that really makes the project special is what producer/videographer Mark Smith calls its “Hive Mind” – the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC), a free-wheeling group of experts and generalists who debate, argue, plan, scheme, critique, and in many ways both power and direct the research. Yes, several of us EPACers were shown doing our things – Kar Burns, Bob Brandenburg, Jeff Glickman, me – and it obviously would have been impossible to crowd everyone in, but some representation of the EPAC as corporate entity would have made the portrayal of the project more accurate. As would an occasional glimpse of the other scholars who’ve contributed their efforts, in and out of EPAC – my generous neighbor Tony Mucciardi and his mids at the U.S. Naval Academy doing materials analysis, Taylor Keen of the University of Maryland doing ground-penetrating radar and dendrochronology, Sharyn Jones at the University of Alabama analyzing the fish bones, Dave Wheeler introducing us to Kite Aerial Photography (KAP)….. As would some representation of the way some of us -- notably Randy Jacobson and Reed Riddle, occasionally I --  beat up on Ric, and dispute his take on things.  Again, I know they couldn’t crowd everybody in, and the purpose of the show wasn’t to give everybody credit, but I think some portrayal of the interactive, collaborative nature of the research would have better informed the public about how such research is done, and better served TIGHAR as a research organization, than did presenting the thing as Ric Gillespie’s personal quest. Even though, on one level, that’s what it is.

Second, there’s the &^%$*&^% “smoking gun.” They trimmed the debate between Ric and me about smoking guns versus the preponderance of evidence (which I recall as being rather truncated anyhow) to the point of being meaningless, and made me seem as fixated as Ric is on finding the hot pistol. I’m not, and think it’s really unwise and unhelpful to keep pandering to the simpleminded about this. Maybe there’s a smoking gun to be found, probably there’s not, but what people ought to learn from our work is a little bit about how science (particularly a science like archaeology) is done. Particularly in a field like archaeology, smoking guns are rarely found, and the success or failure of a piece of research seldom if ever turns on finding one. Only a fool, I’d argue, would base research on the hope of finding a smoking gun, and we try, if not always with success, not to be fools.

With those caveats, I thought it was a good show. It’ll be interesting to see what its results are in terms of public interest.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Note: "The Hunt For Amelia Earhart"

Just finished reading The Hunt for Amelia Earhart, by Douglas Westfall (Orange, CA, 2007; Paragon;; thanks to Lonnie Schorer for sending along a newspaper article that alluded to it.  The Hunt is a fascinating account of the 1937 search efforts by the Itasca, Colorado, Lexington and other ships, and their seamen and flyers.  Many first-person accounts, some of which are well-known to TIGHAR researchers, others new to me at least.  Lots of good reference data and quite wonderful maps and photos, and at $10 for the downloadable E-book version, it’s a steal.
Reading about how hard the Colorado's crew in particular worked to find Earhart made me think that one thing we pursuers of the Nikumaroro Hypothesis ought to make clear is this: although if the hypothesis is correct, they missed finding Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro, this does not mean that they did anything but the best job they could.  Sometimes when I give talks on our work, somebody asks why the Colorado didn't steam in close to Niku and put people ashore to search, or why the Colorado's float-plane crews didn't land to look around.  There are excellent reasons for both circumstances.  The Colorado was a great big expensive battleship, and the waters of the Phoenix Islands were not well charted.  Captain Thompson was very well advised not to steam in too close to islands where uncharted offshore reefs could be lurking.  The situation was similar with the planes.  The only place they could have landed was in the lagoon, which was and is studded with coral heads.  Running into one of those in a flimsy little float plane would really ruin your day.
The pilots gave it their best shot; came in low, made lots of noise, circled and zoomed, tried to attract attention; when they didn't see anyone, they reasonably concluded that there was no one there.  We now know from first-hand experience that it's very hard to see people on the ground amid the hard light/dark contrasts of even the shoreline environment, and quite impossible to see people back in the bush.  We also know how hard it is, if you're back in the bush, to get out to the shore in a timely manner when you hear an aircraft overhead.  The Colorado pilots didn't know those things, and Earhart and Noonan, if they were there, didn't know that airplanes were out searching for them, so there's no reason they would have spelled out "SOS" in seaweed or something.  As for the Electra, if we're right in reconstructing its fate, by the time the Colorado pilots flew over it was off the edge of the Nutiran reef, almost if not completely submerged, in the surf zone where white water would have made it difficult if not impossible to see. 
So, no one ought to affix any blame to the captain and crew of the USS Colorado for missing Earhart and Noonan, if that's what they did, and The Hunt for Amelia Earhart vividly recounts -- often in their own words -- the thinking, planning, and plain hard, dangerous work that they put into the effort.   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I Don’t Think We’ll Find the Airplane – And Why I Don’t Think It Matters

As we approach the air date of “Finding Amelia” on the Discovery Channel, and the buzz about the show builds up, there’s some tendency to reduce the complexities of testing the Nikumaroro Hypothesis to “finding the airplane.” If we can find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra off Nikumaroro’s Nutiran reef, we’ll have proved the hypothesis; if we can’t, the hypothesis will be dealt a deadly blow.  I think this is nonsense, and I want to tell you why.

It’s certainly true that if we find the Electra, or some definitive part of it, down there in the deep water off the edge of the reef, that will cinch the case. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I think it’s a mistake to even imply that anyone ought to use it as the basis for saying yea or nay to the hypothesis.

When I say I don’t think we’re going to find the airplane, that doesn’t mean I think our hypothesis is wrong. Quite the contrary; I think it’s very, very likely to be correct. We have good evidence – from radio data, from historical documents, and from archaeology, that Earhart and Noonan landed on Nikumaroro, survived for awhile, and died. We have good evidence – anecdotal, topographic, tidal, and photographic – that they landed on the Nutiran reef flat, and that the plane sat there for several days and nights before the high tides, increasing from neap to flood, washed it over the lip of the reef.

So we ought to find it down below 300 meters, where the slope of the reef face becomes less precipitous and the talus slope is probably studded with boulders on which the wreckage could get hung up. Right?

Wrong, I think. I think finding the plane, or even substantial parts of the plane, down there is a very long shot, and while I don’t disagree with plans to look for it down there, I don’t think we should let ourselves get too hopeful. And under no circumstances should anyone think that if we don’t find the plane, we’ve disproved the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.

Assuming our interpretation of the “Nessie” photo is correct, the plane – or a big chunk of it including at least one landing gear – got hung up just over the reef edge, in shallow enough water for the gear to protrude and be captured by Eric Bevington’s camera. At that point it would have been there about three months. Assuming Emily Sikuli’s recollections are correct, some elements of the wreckage were still there a couple of years later, observable by fishermen and recognizable – exactly how, we don’t know – as the remains of an airplane. Then they disappeared. What happened to them, and to whatever parts of the airplane may not have hung together with the “Nessie” wreckage?

Currents along the face of the Nutiran reef are variable, but for the most part they flow at a pretty good clip from northwest to southeast. They’re powered by trade-wind-driven swells from the northeast, sweeping around the island’s north cape. Most of the time the Nutiran reef is in the island’s lee, but there’s still plenty of power in the waves that crash on it. And the big storms that hit the island are mostly westerlies, crashing directly into the Nutiran reef. The reef face, at least its upper parts, are a high-energy environment. A fragile thing like an airplane is not likely to last long.

A decade ago, we were blessed to have on the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) Howard Allred, a New Zealand-based coral reef geologist (though he’d gone into olive growing to make his living). Tragically, we lost Howard to a brain tumor not long before the 2007 expedition. I vividly recall Howard making a presentation to an EPAC meeting – he’d flown all the way from New Zealand to participate – on what he thought the action of the ocean on the Nutiran reef would do to the Electra. It would most likely, he said, tear it to shreds, and the pieces would then move slowly southeast along the reef face, every now and then being coughed up onto the reef flat. Such fragments may be responsible for the reflective signatures that appear on some mid-twentieth century aerial photos of the southern Nutiran reef flat, and the periodic deposition of such fragments farther southeast, along the Ritiati shoreline, could be the source of the airplane parts we’ve found in the colonial village, some of them fashioned into handicrafts.

At the EPAC meeting someone – perhaps I – asked Howard where the plane parts might be by now. He said that by now they would have reached the midpoint of the shoreline, where the currents flowing down from the northwest run into those flowing up from around the southeast tip.

And how big would they be by now? Howard opined that they could be reduced to the size of sand grains.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that biggish parts of the Electra – notably those two big heavy engines – went down into deep water before they had a chance to be ground up by weather and waves. But the engines and other heavy parts of the airplane have their own problems. They’re steel, as are the pieces of the SS Norwich City that are scattered down the face of the Nutiran reef. The 2010 ROV work didn’t turn up a great deal of Norwich City wreckage on the reef face above 300 meters, but we know that the stern of the ship broke off and went down there, and much of the rest of it must have followed. There’s probably a good-sized Norwich City debris field at the base of the reef, all made of steel. Can the Electra’s steel engines or gear be distinguished from Norwich City debris? Maybe, but I’d call it a long shot.

My point is simply this. It’s very easy to imagine ways that the Electra could have done exactly what we think it did – landed on the Nutiran reef, sat there awhile, gone over the edge and been hung up for awhile in the surf zone or just below it – and leave no trace at all that’s discernible today. Except in the form of fragments collected by the colonists and brought to the village to be made into combs, fishing lures, and inlay for wood boxes. Maybe some big pieces escaped being ground to powder or coughed up in little chunks to be recycled by the colonists; maybe some big pieces slid down into the abyssal depths and can be detected. Or maybe not. It’s the old chestnut: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If we find the plane, good, but if we don’t find it, it will not by any means discredit the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 5

Screening (sifting, sieving) is relatively ineffective, because this is what you're confronted with once you've filled your screen.
In 2010, we used screens only as a backup, finding that it was more efficient, and that we actually could be more confident of finding things (even very small things) through straightforward troweling.

Bottom line:  Nikumaroro isn't exactly a HARD place to do archaeological fieldwork, but it is an extremely SLOW place to do it, and artifacts, bones, and other items of interest don't exactly leap out at one.

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 4

The surface sorts itself, so that there's a sort of "armor" on the very surface, made up of biggish (say, finger-sized and bigger) pieces of coral, through which smaller stuff filters, generally concentrating at about 10 cm. depth.  So the surface "armor" obscures smaller items (even things like fire features made up of charcoal and ash, to say nothing of bottle shards, rouge fragments, ferrous items, and so on).
This is the stratigraphy in the north wall of our deepest unit; the logs across the top are to minimize collapse.  Again, a 50 cm. scale (and 20 cm. North Arrow).

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 3

Once you get the surface clear, it looks like this -- made up of coral rubble.  That's a 50 cm. scale.  Hard to spot things, especially things like bones.

And that's not the only problem....

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 2

Areas that aren't covered in Scaevola are often covered in coconuts and pandanus gone wild, which dump a tremendous load of leaves, fronds, nuts, etc. on the ground, which then rots and forms a pretty difficult ground-cover.

Walking through this stuff is not entirely easy, and detecting anything under it is something else again.  Not a walk in the park.

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology 1

I'm sometimes asked how come, given that Nikumaroro is such a small island and we've been there so often, we're still uncertain about exactly what's there to be found that might be related to Earhart.  Having just learned (I think) to add images to a blog posting, I thought I'd illustrate.  Apparently I can include only one image per post, so there will be several posts to follow.

Here's Challenge #1: Scaevola frutescens, or Mao: Covers many areas of interest including the Seven Site.  Grows about 3 meters high, tangled, very hard to cut. Here John Clauss tries to penetrate a patch.  Not easy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Fickle Finger

In a just-published November 2010 "Review and Update" issue of Tighar Tracks, Ric Gillespie summarizes where things stand with the Earhart project; it's a good background to have on hand when watching the Discovery Channel's Finding Amelia on December 11.

One thing Ric writes about is "the fickle finger," a single phalange that turned up during the sorting of faunal remains from the Seven Site. I want to elaborate a bit on this interesting object.

Identified bones at the Seven Site fall into six general categories. There are fish bones, bird bones, rat bones, baby sea turtle bones, adult sea turtle bones, and medium mammal bones. The fish bones come from reef and lagoon fish; the bird bones come from Frigate Birds, Boobies, and perhaps a few other species. The baby turtle bones doubtless represent (duh) baby turtles collected either in the eggs or shortly after leaving them on the beach. The medium mammal bones appear to represent canned mutton. It was the adult turtle bones from all three fieldwork episodes at the Seven Site (2001, 2007, 2010) that I was sorting when I came upon the fickle finger (FF).

Turtles, of course, have phalanges; they're the skeletal structures of their flippers. The FF came from a part of the site -- the northeast end, under the big ren (Tornefortia) tree -- where turtle bones have been found, so I put it in the "adult turtle" category, but it looked enough like a human phalange (finger or toe bone) that I first sent it to forensic anthropologist Karen Burns (U. of Utah) for her diagnoses. She thought it was probably turtle, but couldn't rule out the possibility that it was human.

Meanwhile, for the first time I'd organized all the rest of the turtle bones, and found that the vast majority clearly represent the carapace (back) and perhaps the plastron (tummy) of one or more turtles; at the moment I see little reason to think we have more than a single individual, though the pieces were deposited at three locations on the site. There were also a number of odd long bones that I -- by no means a turtle specialist -- figured were fragments of femur, tibia, radius, ulna, or humerus. I imaged these bones and sent them out to TIGHAR's Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) and others, seeking advice.

Dr. Howard Hutchison is a retired Paleontologist associated with the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and a friend of TIGHAR's Andrew McKenna, whose late father, Malcolm, was a noted paleontologist. Andrew showed Dr. Hutchison my images, and Dr. Hutchison identified my "long bones" as the peripheral bones that run around the periphery (duh) of the turtle's shell. In other words, I apparently had no long (leg) bones. We're in the process of working with Dr. Hutchison to confirm (or disconfirm) this identification.

So, as Ric says in Tracks, "if whoever brought the turtle to the Seven Site didn't bring the legs, how did a phalanx get there?" The interesting contrast is that -- assuming, of course, that we're right about the Seven Site being where the colonists collected human bones in 1940 -- human leg (and arm) bones have been found there. And Gallagher tells us that those bones, like the FF, were found under a ren tree.

The fickle finger is now with Dr. Cecil Lewis at the University of Oklahoma's Molecular Science Laboratories, being checked for human (or turtle) DNA. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro: Responding to Some of the More Aggressive Questions

The more aggressive critics of the Nikumaroro Hypothesis on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan routinely lodge several complaints about the hypothesis. Having just fielded some of them (from a polite and gentlemanly critic) I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer some responses.

1. How could Fred Noonan, one of the preeminent celestial navigators of the time, get so far off course as to wind up on Nikumaroro?

Answer: First, he never expected to navigate a bee-line right in to Howland Island. His job was to get them close to the island; then radio direction finding would guide them in. There’s no reason to think he didn’t get them close, but the RDF didn’t work, so they couldn’t find their way in to the island itself. Second, we don’t propose that he and Earhart flew straight from Lae to Nikumaroro, which would have required them to be way off course. We think they got close to Howland, couldn’t find it, and very rationally flew south along the line of position that Noonan had laid out, knowing that if they were north of Howland they should find it, and if they were south of Howland they should come into the Phoenix group – i.e. to Nikumaroro.

2. She didn’t have enough fuel to get to Nikumaroro.

Answer: Nobody can know for sure what conditions Earhart and Noonan faced on their flight, but if they managed their fuel the way they planned to manage it, they should have had enough fuel to do what we think they did – fly to the vicinity of Howland Island and then fly down the line of position to Nikumaroro. The hypotheses that have them crashing at sea invariably include assumptions about fuel evaporation, headwinds, dog-legs on their route of flight, or poor fuel management that are entirely speculative.

3. Nikumaroro was occupied by colonists from Kiribati and Tuvalu from 1939 until 1963. How come they never found evidence of Earhart and Noonan?

Answer: This is a real red herring, because the colonists did find evidence. They’re documented as having found a partial human skeleton, a woman’s shoe, a man’s shoe, a sextant box, a Benedictine bottle, and some corks on chains. They also found airplane parts, and left them in their village.

4. But that’s not definitive evidence!

Answer: It’s not a great big placard with “I am Amelia Earhart” written on it. It’s not a complete Lockheed Electra. It’s not Earhart’s journal stuffed in a bottle. If we controlled the universe, maybe we’d arrange for such definitive evidence to have been found, but we don’t. We don’t have a “smoking gun,” but in archaeology (or in crime scene investigation, for that matter) we seldom do. Between what was found in 1940 and what we’ve found on expeditions to the island, I think we have a pretty good body of evidence; it may not be definitive, but it’s pretty indicative.

5. But the island’s only four and a half miles long, only a mile and a half wide. You’ve gone there eight times and spent millions of dollars. You should have searched every square inch of the place; if she was there, why haven’t you found definitive evidence?

Answer: First, there may not be any definitive evidence left. Imagine, critic, that you die on an island someplace, and the crabs eat you, your clothes, your wallet, your passport. What’s going to be left to show that you were you? Second, we have found a good deal of evidence, mostly at the Seven Site, in the form of female-related artifacts from the U.S., dating to the 1930s, and in the form of fish and shellfish remains that suggest subsistence by a non-indigenous islander. And we’ve found airplane parts, though none that can be absolutely linked to the Electra. Third, the island’s small, yes, but it’s not Central Park or the National Mall. It’s heavily forested, and much of it is covered by feral coconut and pandanus woodland that builds up a tremendous ground cover of deadfall. Much of it is covered by Scaevola, a shrub whose closely intertwined stalks form a near-impenetrable mass about three meters high; it’s very, very slow going to work through this stuff, and very difficult to see anything that’s in or under it. Fourth, the ground surface over much of the island is made up of coral rubble, most of it about finger-sized. Little stuff like bones and small artifacts sifts down through the surface layer and is effectively invisible. Finding such stuff requires literally crawling on hands and knees and troweling the surface. You don’t just stroll around Nikumaroro finding things.

6. But the Electra is a really big, utterly distinctive artifact. Why haven’t you found it, if it’s there?

Answer: Well, maybe we have, in part, in small pieces the colonists brought in to the village, probably after finding them on the reef. We’ve found a lot of aircraft aluminum; the problem is that aircraft aluminum is pretty much aircraft aluminum. It doesn’t have “I am an Electra” stamped all over it. Besides, if our reconstruction of what happened is correct, the airplane stayed on the reef flat for a few days and then went over the edge. At that point one of two things – or a combination of the two – happened. First, all or part of the plane may have slid down the reef face into deep water; the reef face is very steep down to about 300 meters, and that’s as deep as we’ve been able to survey so far. Second, all or part of the plane may have been ripped to shreds in the high-energy environment of the reef edge, and then scattered along the face of the reef by currents and storms, occasionally being coughed up onto the reef flat for the colonists to find. In short, we almost certainly don’t have a big, distinctive airplane to find on Nikumaroro. We may have one, or part of one, in deep water off the Nutiran reef (though personally, I doubt it), but getting down there to find it is a large, expensive undertaking, and thus far we haven’t been able to afford it. We’re going to do it; the money’s being raised right now, and planning is underway. But I’m not sanguine about it; I don’t think the chances are very good that enough of the plane has survived to be identified, and I’m afraid that if a deepwater search doesn’t reveal the Electra squatting someplace on the bottom, looking like an Electra, that will be taken as “proof” that Earhart didn’t land on Nikumaroro. It will, of course, be nothing of the kind, but as our critics routinely remind us, the fact that an allegation makes no sense is scant impediment to those intent on alleging it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: A Remote Viewer’s Take on the Fates of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan

Review of Evidential Details: Amelia Earhart, Takeoff to Oblivion, by Seeds/McMoneagle. Lisle, IL, Evidential Details Imprint, 2000?

This book posits – though it presents its hypothesis as fact – that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan ended their 1937 World Flight by crashing at Nikumaroro and dying without getting ashore. It reaches this conclusion through an exercise in “remote viewing” (RV) by Joseph McMoneagle. The book represents Mr. McMoneagle as an expert in RV. It implies but does not quite say that he was awarded the U.S. Army’s Legion of Merit Award (an image of which serve’s as the book’s cover art and which is described on the back of the title page) for his RV services to the U.S. intelligence community.

I became aware of Evidential Details during our 2010 expedition to Nikumaroro; SeaBotix remotely operated vehicle (ROV) expert Jesse Rodocker had a copy, and it was the subject of some discussion. I recently obtained my own copy from its publisher, and have had time to read it with care. It’s a very odd piece of work.

To begin with, there’s a question of authorship – who wrote it? The cover and title page ascribe its authorship to “Seeds/McMoneagle, but a note on page 5 says that “(a)ny interpretations or historical conclusions contained herein cannot be considered to represent the opinion of, or to be endorsed by Joseph McMoneagle or any other named individual.” It goes on to say that (t)he final manuscript was not submitted for approval” (by whom?). Whatever this note is intended to convey, it seems pretty clear that Joseph McMoneagle is not the author. This leaves us with “Seeds,” who is never identified or even given a first (or last?) name.

Another question is its publication date. Its copyright (“copywrite”) date is given as 2000, based on “RV session work” in 1998, but toward the book’s end, a scornful discussion of TIGHAR’s plans for the 2010 expedition suggests that it was published only this year, or perhaps in 2009.

Be all this as it may, the book has a prologue (“prolog”) attributed to H.E. Pruthoff of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin (Texas), describing the beginning, early successes, and history of RV programs carried out by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and other U.S. agencies between 1972 and 1995. This paper makes interesting reading, and provides a potentially useful bibliography for anyone interested in learning more about RV.

What is RV? Wikipedia defines it as “the ability to gather information about a distant or unseen target using paranormal means.” As described in Evidentiary Details’ prologue, it involves giving a skilled viewer the geographic coordinates of a place or thing of interest, whereupon the viewer visualizes, describes, and sometimes sketches the place or object. How the viewer prepares to perform this work is not discussed, but a short description on pages 155-156 of some RV sessions seems to suggest that the viewer enters some sort of light trance state.

Following the prologue is a 40-page discussion of events surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This seems like something of a digression, but appears to be designed to illustrate the utility of RV in historical research. In this case and in that of Earhart’s disappearance, the viewer is given a target date as well as the geographic coordinates of a target location. We are told that on October 29, 1997, two months after Princess Diana’s demise, McMoneagle was given an envelope containing the latitude and longitude of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, together with the date of the accident that took her life. McMoneagle’s visualizations are then woven together with Seeds(?) account of the accident, providing details said to have been confirmed through subsequent police work and allegedly evidencing that the driver of Princess Diana’s car, Henri Paul, was not – as widely reported – intoxicated.

With this preparation, we are taken to Mr. McMoneagle’s viewing of the world flight’s denouement. Apparently – the details are not provided – Mr. McMoneagle was given the coordinates of the Lae airfield and the date of Earhart’s takeoff for Howland Island. As with the Spencer example, his observations (in bold face) are interwoven with Seeds’(?) account of recorded events with which all Earhart researchers are familiar.

McMoneagle and Seeds(?) collectively posit that Earhart and Noonan were south of their intended course when they hit the line of position extending through Howland Island. They have them doing a good deal of maneuvering – accounting for Earhart’s cryptic reference to “circling” – and then coming up on Nikumaroro, very low on fuel, from the southeast. They attempt to land “between outside reefs” (p. 118), think all is going well, but then strike a coral head. The plane flips, crashes upside-down, and Earhart and Noonan are killed.

As part of his viewing session, McMoneagle apparently produced a sketch-map of the reef on which he visualized the crash to have taken place, with an X marking the spot and his estimates of water depths and ranges to landforms. Seeds(?) discusses his efforts to match this map with Howland and other islands, and his eventual discovery that it is a pretty good match for the lee side of Nikumaroro. Comparing maps and using McMoneagle’s estimates, he places the crash site off Aukaraime South, southeast of Bauareke Passage, 2283 feet from the southwest tip of the island, in 650 feet of water. He proceeds to provide instructions for finding the site and trolling for the plane’s remains.

In the course of his studies, Seeds(?) of course came upon TIGHAR’s research, though he doesn’t seem to have read much about it. His bibliography lists two 1996 issues of Tighar Tracks, and lists neither Amelia Earhart’s Shoes nor Finding Amelia. He assures us that the tide was high when Earhart and Noonan arrived off Nikumaroro, appearing unaware of Bob Brandenburg’s hindcasting indicating that it was not. He flatly says that all the post-loss radio messages were hoaxes, without addressing any of Ric Gillespie’s evidence that some or most were not. He scores TIGHAR for wasting money on our research rather than simply “reading a map” (presumably, McMoneagle’s).

So what about that map, and the scenario McMoneagle portrayed?

First, of course, if the scenario is correct we will have to find non-Earhart explanations for all the radio transmissions, the 1940 bones discovery, the sextant box, the shoes, the accounts of wreckage on the Nutiran reef, the Nessie and other imagery, and all our archaeological findings at the Seven Site. I’m not unwilling to give remote viewing the benefit of a doubt or two, but I’m hardly prepared to throw out a large body of historical, oral historical, archaeological, and radio data on the strength of one person’s reported visualization .

Second and more important, there are some things about the visualization that don’t add up.

A. McMoneagle has the landing attempt take place “between outside reefs” (p. 118). But there are no “outside reefs” at Nikumaroro between which to land. There is only one reef around Nikumaroro, with a broad reef flat extending from the reef’s precipitous outer edge to the shore of the island. The reef flat, lying between the reef edge and the island’s shore, is a very plausible landing place, and if one landed there one might hit a coral head, or more likely a block of coral thrown up by storm action. But a crash landing on the reef flat would not produce wreckage at 650-foot depth, except through some process of secondary deposition that McMoneagle does not mention. Nor would it produce wreckage 13-1400 feet off – that is, outside – the reef.

B. But what if McMoneagle was mistaken only in his “between outer reefs” observation? Could Earhart have attempted a wheels-up landing as he describes on open water 1300 to 1400 feet off the reef edge? Certainly, but she would not have encountered a coral head there. The water that far off the reef is hundreds if not thousands of feet deep .

C. Add to these difficulties the fact that TIGHAR divers searched the reef face down to 100-150 feet through the target area in 1989, and that TIGHAR had side-scan sonar sweeps through the same area to a much greater depth in 1991, all with negative results, and the McMoneagle map looks less and less worthy of serious attention.

On page 135, Seeds(?) quotes Ric Gillespie (who he refers to, rather irritatingly to this TIGHAR member, as TIGHAR’s “owner”), as saying “that psychic stuff is just hocus-pocus.” That’s probably an accurate quote; Ric is utterly dismissive of paranormal powers as displayed by anyone but his remarkable horse Gofer. Others in the organization (This one, at least) are not so ready to reject alternative views of reality. I don’t think Seeds(?) and McMoneagle have put forth much of a case in this odd little book, but they have advanced an hypothesis, generating an X on a map whose meaning can be tested. Time was not available during the 2010 expedition to apply the SeaBotix ROV technology to the McMoneagle hypothesis, but if and when TIGHAR gets back to the island for more deep-water searching, I hope such a test will be included in the research plan. Or someone else may want to take a stab at doing so, as Seeds(?) and McMoneagle (subject to the page 5 caveat) propose on pages 123-124. If anyone does pursue such an enterprise, I trust they will do so only with the permission and cooperation of the Kiribati government and the administration of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, employing all appropriate archaeological and environmental protection protocols. Neither Nikumaroro’s fragile reef nor its fragile archaeology need people grappling around for airplane wreckage as Seeds(?) and McMoneagle propose, and undertaking such an enterprise without the permission of Kiribati authorities would be flatly illegal.

Friday, June 18, 2010

We're Baaaack

Some preliminary observations, etc. on the 2010 TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro, from which I arrived home at about 3 am yesterday -- was it only yesterday?

1. We all got home safe and sound. No major accidents or incidents. Great weather, good operating conditions.
2. The ROV searched down to about 300 meters in the primary search area, found the reef face to be more precipitous and uncluttered than expected, but depth soundings revealed a substantial sloping ledge beginning just BELOW the ORV's range (naturally) on which a plane could easily get hung up.
3. The AUV, augmented with towed side-scan sonar, did a pretty thorough survey of the lagoon, with negative results.
4. At the Seven Site, we pretty much carried out the agreed-upon strategy, excavating seven two-meter wide lanes along the ridge crest by trowel, plus a transverse lane and several 2x2 and 1x1 units in key areas (See attached KAP image).
Kite Aerial Photograph of Seven Site with excavations and major features marked

5. We found that fire features are much more numerous than previously understood, but the two big ones excavated in 2007 (and re-explored in 2010) appear to be the most likely to be associated with the castaway -- together with one new feature found to the SE.
6. We thoroughly explored the area under the Big Ren (Tournefortia) tree, with generally negative results.
7. We brought home a considerable collection of items that might retain DNA, all collected under sterile conditions. These include fragments of a cosmetic(?) jar, several possible human bone fragments, and much of the rest of the jackknife of which fragments were found in 2007, plus a number of additional pieces of probable rouge. Also a large collection of fish, bird, and turtle bones from fire features and elsewhere.
8. The possible DNA sources are en route to the DNA lab. Most of the remaining material (Lane-segment bags, etc.) are en route to me from Samoa via Fedex. I'll be making arrangements for faunal analysis.
9. Technologically -- KAP imagery worked great, UV scanning was once again a bust, and Ground-Penetrating Radar yielded many very interesting signals that when excavated proved to be nothing at all; very puzzling.

Everyone on the team worked their butts off; all the boats worked most of the time, the two expedition ships stayed afloat, and things went pretty much according to schedule.

General View of Excavations -- Lifesaving canopies courtesy Karl Kern

Be on the lookout for a documentary on the project on a major TV channel in the fall.

Now to get back to the real world.....


Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Plan Comes Together

Just a tad over a week till we blast off for Apia, and thence to Nikumaroro. Things are coming together nicely; all up-front charter fees are paid, gear is shipped, the expedition ship Nai’a is refitted after a disastrous fire, and TIGHAR has executed an agreement with a major broadcaster that should result in a high-quality documentary on the project. Subject to Murphy’s Law, the work plan looks like this:

1. Remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) will search the reef face off the Nutiran land unit down to a depth of about 300 meters; if plane parts don’t turn up there, they’ll move on to the southeast along the reef face.

2. An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) will search in the lagoon (We don’t think the plane is in the lagoon, but others do, and we think substantial parts may have washed in there). Divers will spot-check results.

3. We’ll trowel-strip an area exposure of roughly 15x30 meters at the Seven Site, down to at least 10 cm. (the depth of most cultural material found to date), followed up with a ground-penetrating radar survey of the entire site, and excavation of any anomalies. There’ll also be repeated metal detector sweeps, screening of selected deposits, and where it appears useful, ultraviolet scans. Recovery of anything that might contain detectable DNA will be done under sterile conditions. Documentation will include total station mapping and kite aerial photography.

4. We’ll explore transects to the southeast, northwest, and northeast of what we now define as the Seven Site to see if anything extends out in those directions.

5. We’ll excavate at least one cookhouse feature in the colonial village, for comparative purposes, and search its site for plane parts.

6. We’ll document various interesting features in the lagoon, and

7. We’ll search crab dens in the forest around the Seven Site for any bones or artifacts the crabs’ ancestors may have dragged off and abandoned.

We’ll have about three weeks on the island to do all this. Daily reports will be sent in by satphone to TIGHAR Central in Wilmington, DE, US, and posted on TIGHAR’s website ( We will not have direct internet access on the island or aboard ship.

That’s the plan, anyhow. But in 22 years on this project, no expedition has ever quite gone according to plan. We shall see. Or as Rudyard Kipling put it:

The Lord knows what we may find, dear lass,
And The Deuce knows what we may do—
But we’re back once more on the old trail, our own trail, the out trail,
We’re down, hull-down, on the Long Trail—the trail that is always new.

(Kipling: “The Long Trail”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's All Done With Mirrors

In case you've ever wondered how long it takes a mirror to lose its silvering (reflective backing), there's now a short paper reporting an experiment on the subject, on TIGHAR's Ameliawiki (or Ameliapedia) at The wiki is the vehicle we're using to develop, organize, and present a wide range of data pertinent to the Earhart project, including archaeological site reports, artifact and other analyses, historical data, environmental data, etc. etc. The mirror study was occasioned by finding (in 2001 and 2007 on the Seven Site) pieces of what we're pretty sure was the mirror from a woman's compact from the 1930s.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Frustration; or, The Airplane is not the Only Game in Town

I’ve been corresponding with a fellow who wrote, initially, asking some seemingly reasonable questions about our Earhart search, and offering some seemingly thoughtful suggestions. But as our correspondence has progressed, it’s taken on a sadly familiar form – a sufficiently good (or bad) example of a common type of thinking that I thought it would be worth discussing here.

My correspondent first asked some questions relating to navigational and radio transmission particulars, which I referred to the relevant experts in TIGHAR’s Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC). In passing, I mentioned our plans for work at the Seven Site. He responded:

The search off the island reef is what I am interested in, as the plane is not on the island.

I resisted saying “duh,” and replied:

Well, with all due respect for my colleagues who think they're going to find the plane, or big parts of it, on the reef face (and I certainly hope they do), I expect our biggest bang for the buck to come from work on land, both at the putative death site (the Seven Site) and in the village, where there certainly may be parts of the plane, albeit not big ones. We shall see.

But my correspondent simply is not interested in what we find on land. His response was:

If the plane made it to Gardner and is not on the land, it should be in the sea off the reef.

Again resisting the urge to thank ObviousMan for his enlightenment, I said:

The sea off the reef is a big place, the sea generally is a dynamic environment, and the plane was fragile.

He responded:

It weighed 7400 Lbs empty, and two heavy engines are not going to let it travel far. If it washed off the reef, it should have gone straight down I should imagine Tom. I can only imagine this will be TIGHARS last expedition to Gardner Island.

Rather short on imagination, my correspondent, but his “imagining” did, I thought, reveal something of a bias: “They’re not going to find the airplane, so that will disprove their silly hypothesis, and that will be the end of TIGHAR.” But I tried again to explain, answering:

"Straight down" is a relative term, on the face of a seamount. And there's a lot of "down" into which it could have gone -- straight, crooked, intact or in pieces. It's simplistic to think this expedition or any such project is going to yield a black-and-white, yes-or-no answer; the answer is more likely to come from a sifting of the whole body of evidence.

Such sifting is not something to which my correspondent seems to relate well. He immediately shifted focus, saying:

Didn’t Earhart’s 3105 signal only have ½ a watt radiation due to the antenna set up, surely that was too weak for Pan Am to detect from 1800 miles away? Mr Jones on Hull said he could work Australia with his set up and Canton had a Navy wireless station left from the eclipse observation, aren’t these stations more likely to be the targets Pan Am detected? Even if Earhart’s plane had made it to land, the batteries would have run down by the 4th and 5th of July Tom.

At this point I passed my correspondent off to Ric Gillespie, who says he handles at least one such inquiry a day. Ric referred him to Bob Brandenburg’s analysis of radio matters ( – suffice to say that the matter of what could have been detected where is a good deal more complicated than my correspondent seems to think. Ric also advised him that Mr. Jones did not have a functioning transmitter at the time of Earhart’s disappearance (Jones told the USS Colorado pilots that his transmitter had been down for some time – of course, he could have been lying), and that as far as we can tell from the records, nobody left a transmitter (electronic and/or human) on Canton after the eclipse expedition. As for the batteries running down, as Ric succinctly put it:

The batteries would have run down long before that, unless she ran an engine to recharge them, which is exactly what we think she did.

None of this, however, is likely to convince my correspondent, or others like him who are utterly convinced that the Nikumaroro Hypothesis is wrong, ignore evidence that’s contrary to their convictions, and who see no value in anything but absolute smoking-gun proof.

Setting aside my correspondent’s willful ignorance of evidence, I can render the core of our correspondence as the following abstraction:

My correspondent: “So you think X.”

Me: “Well, I think X, but there are lots of variables involved, so – assuming we’re generally correct in our assumptions – it might be X, X1, X2, X3, or maybe Xn.”

My correspondent: “But if it’s X, then you’ll find Y evidence.”

Me: “Well, maybe, but given all the variables, it could be Y1, Y2, Y3 or Yn. Plus you need to consider evidence A, B, M, Q, and Z.”

My correspondent: “I’m not interested in anything but Y. If you don’t find Y, your hypothesis is wrong and that’s that.”

I suppose it might be nice if reality were organized in such a straightforward way, but of course it’s not. Returning from abstraction to reality and focusing on my correspondent’s stated central interest, we have pretty good evidence (anecdotal and photographic, with consistent tidal and topographic data) suggesting that Earhart and Noonan put their plane down on the Nutiran reef flat, off the northwest end of Nikumaroro. But supposing they did, there’s no guarantee that there’s evidence of the plane still to be found in that neighborhood. We think there’s enough likelihood that evidence has survived that we – and our sponsors and cooperating organizations – are willing to invest quite a bit of time and money sending down submersibles to search the reef face, but we aren’t about to say it’s a sure thing those submersibles will find something. And if they don’t, it won’t prove that Earhart and Noonan didn’t land where we think they did. It might mean that:

1. Once the airplane washed off the reef, it floated quite a way before sinking, going down far from the reef edge and therefore way down the side of the volcano that underlies the island, beyond the reach of our submersiables (There’s evidence suggesting that this isn’t what happened, but it’s still possible).

2. Once the airplane washed off the reef, it simply tumbled down the face of the reef to some abyssal point below the depth (about 300 meters) at which our submersibles can operate.

3. The airplane has broken up over the years into such tiny pieces that its debris field is not detectable in the doubtless complex environment of the reef face.

Shifting to the body of evidence that my correspondent scorns, we think the Seven Site, at the southeast end of the island, is most likely where Earhart – or perhaps Noonan, or perhaps both – expired, and we’re going to dig the bejeebers out of the place this year in hopes of finding out whether we’re right. But even assuming we ARE right:

1. There may not be any recoverable human remains left; they may have been completely reduced by the crabs, microorganisms, and other forces of nature.

2. There may be such remains, but they’re not discernible given the search technology we’re able to deploy, and the limitations of our own tiny brains.

3. The same goes for distinctive artifacts, which Earhart and Noonan may or may not have had with them anyway.

It’s my guess that:
(a) We’re basically right about what happened to Earhart and Noonan; but
(b) The chances of our finding absolute smoking-gun proof that we’re right are relatively slim.

Of course, we hope for smoking guns, but we’re not counting on them, and our research isn’t built around finding them. Particularly at the Seven Site, we’re aiming to add to the mass of evidence we already have that points to this being where Earhart or Noonan (probably the former) breathed her last – that is:

The bones, shoes, and sextant box found on the site (or somewhere else on the southeast end that closely matches its description) in 1940;

The evidence of someone unskilled in the relevant subsistence practices trying to process shellfish and fish on the site.

The evidence suggesting someone trying to purify water in a fire on the site;

The apparent remains of a woman’s compact from the 1930s, and

The various other non-military, American-origin artifacts on the site.

What’s frustrating is that none of this impresses my correspondent at all. To him, we must find a specific, obvious piece of definitive evidence (the airplane), and if we don’t find it, this will be proof that we’re wrong. The absence of evidence (or our simple human inability to find or recognize it) is evidence of absence. I wonder how the guy survives if he applies the same sort of rigid thinking to his everyday life.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Under three months now till the 2010 TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro launches, sailing out of Apia, Samoa. We have two major and one subsidiary objective.

Major: 1. Systematic excavation of the Seven Site, at the SE end of the island, where we think the bones that may have been Earhart's were found in 1940.

Major: 2. Robotic survey of the reef face off Nutiran, where we think Earhart and Noonan landed in 1937, down to a depth of about 300 meters.

Subsidiary: Excavation of one or more cookhouses in the colonial village at Ritiati, to obtain faunal material for comparison with fire features at the Seven Site. Ancillary site mapping, metal detecting, surface collection.

Of course, the way things usually happen, we have to be prepared for major changes in plan, but that's what we INTEND to do. D-Day is May 18, with return on June 15. News of progress will be posted at as it happens.