Saturday, July 13, 2013

So You Want To Go To Nikumaroro?

With all the recent publicity about sonar images on the Nikumaroro reef ( and the discovery of 1939 aerial photos ( , there’s been an uptick of interest in visiting Nikumaroro by other groups and individuals.  For example, the Tri-County Amateur Radio Club of North Texas, WC5C, is raising money for a trip to the island to develop baseline radio transmission data (See, and historical filmmaker Matthew Arnold has a kickstarter campaign to fund a study of the island’s “historical and mythological landscape” (See
Such interest is very welcome, but if you’re thinking about a visit, bear in mind that it’s a long way from the closest commercial airports and seaports (in the Samoas and Fiji, 600-900 nautical miles) and you have to carry all your own gear and supplies -- no human beings live on the island or in its near vicinity.  In practical terms this means having your own ship.  Moreover:

1.     Nikumaroro is part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), with a fragile environment that's protected under international law and the laws of the Republic of Kiribati.  Kiribati and PIPA's administrators must give permission to access the island, and they impose various (not very onerous but nevertheless real) protective conditions. Information and contact points for PIPA can be found at 

2.     To ensure that its rules are followed, Kiribati requires that a government representative accompany expeditions, at the expedition’s expense.

3.     The island's archaeology is also very fragile and subject to easy and unwitting disturbance. This includes not only whatever archaeological remains there may be of Earhart's and Noonan's time there, but the remains of the colonial village that existed on the island from 1939 to 1963, those of the US Coast Guard station that operated there from 1944 to 1946, the wrecked steamship Norwich City, and scattered prehistoric sites. Under an agreement with the government of Kiribati, TIGHAR has an exclusive license to conduct archaeological research on the island in connection with the Earhart mystery; Kiribati refers all applications for similar licenses to TIGHAR for review and recommendations.

4.     Don’t neglect to take a doctor or emergency medical technician. Although the island is generally a pretty benign place, it's easy to get coral cuts, slip on the reef, get jabbed by the vegetation, and so on. Diving on the reef or in the lagoon creates additional risks.

5.     You’ll want to avoid the tropical cyclone season (roughly November 1-April 30).  Rough weather can make the island inaccessible, and of course can also sink your ship and kill you.

6.     There’s only one generally usable access point to the island, via a channel blasted through the reef flat during the island's evacuation in the 1960s. Depending on tide and weather conditions, it can be pretty tricky to load and offload personnel and equipment there; this is one of the major danger points in any visit to the island, at least when seas are rough.
I outline these considerations not to discourage interest in visiting Nikumaroro or other islands of the PIPA (e.g. Manra, Orona, Kanton, Enderbury, McKean) – all beautiful places (well, maybe not McKean) with their own fascinating histories and environments, but just to emphasize that visiting is not a lark to be undertaken lightly; it requires some planning and costs money.  AND most importantly, I want to emphasize that the island is a sensitive place, that must be approached with care and consideration.

TIGHAR’s spent more time on and around Nikumaroro than just about any group of people alive today, and we’re happy to discuss possibilities with anyone who wants to consider a visit.  Check for information and points of contact, or drop me a note at

The landing channel: image by Graham Berwind, 2010