Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reflections on the 2015 Betchart/TIGHAR Visit to Nikumaroro

On June 18 through July 2, 2015, I was privileged to participate in the Betchart Expeditions/TIGHAR tour of Nikumaroro (by way of Rotuma and Funafuti, and with sponsorship by the Planetary Society, AAAS, and Sigma Xi). Betchart’s Bob Nanson was the tour coordinator, and CEO Margaret Betchart oversaw the whole shebang. We were ably assisted by TIGHAR researchers Art and Janis Carty, Tom Roberts, Dawn Johnson, Joe Cerniglia, and for a time Barb Norris (who got desperately sick early in the voyage and had to be evacuated, but seems to be OK now), as well as by Frank Thomas of the University of the South Pacific and Jaime Bach, a PhD candidate at the University of Montana who did her MA thesis on Kiribati. We had 61 passengers from the U.S., Australia, the U.K, and elsewhere, and traveled aboard the MV Fiji Princess out of Port Denerou, Fiji. The trip was coordinated with TIGHAR’s Niku VIII expedition, but we had only a day and a half of overlap on the island with the TIGHAR team.

I’ll admit to having been rather terrified by the trip’s prospects; it was the first large tour cruise that we know of to Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), and I had real doubts about our – and especially my – ability to get people (some of them even older and less able than I) on and off the island, which of course involves passage over a slippery, hard, sharp, surf-battered coral reef. I was also concerned about people getting lost, expiring in the heat, and experiencing other indeterminate catastrophes.

Happily we were not visited with any disasters, and had a good four days at the island. We were blessed with relatively calm weather, good management by Betchart, and excellent support by the officers and crew of Fiji Princess. As a result, I think we were able to give the passengers a pretty good trip, and introduced them pretty thoroughly to the island and to TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro Hypothesis on the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.

Contributing to our ongoing work to test that hypothesis, we accomplished several pieces of work:

1. We found what appears to have been a warehouse for the Nikumaroro colony’s Cooperative Store, wherein we found, of all things, what appear to be perfume bottles and French perfumed soap jars. This suggests that the colonists, rather than Earhart, might have been responsible for the cosmetic products we’ve found at the Seven Site – something we knew in the abstract, but for which we’d heretofore had no evidence.

2. We cleared and searched a 15x15 meter plot east of the Cooperative Store, finding two more aluminum hair combs (one very fancy) and a teakettle out of which metal had been cut to produce tabular blanks that could be made into things like combs. This demonstrated that an airplane was not the only plausible source of such raw materials.

3. Biologist Rachel King (my older daughter, say I proudly) did a quick but thorough look for edible and poisonous plants, found a fair number of the former and none of the latter. This helps flesh out the story of Earhart-on-Nikumaroro, assuming she was there.

4. Betchart naturalist Bob Nanson looked over the fauna and provided some useful insights into (particularly) how Earhart might have lived off marine and avian resources, notably bird eggs.

5. TIGHAR’s Tom Roberts and a doughty crew loaned by the Fiji Princess hacked their way into the Seven Site to assess its current condition and let the passengers see where we think it likely that Earhart died.

6. TIGHAR’s Dawn Johnson collected samples for use in testing the efficacy of forensic dogs in identifying bones on the island.

7. TIGHAR member and Michigan State Representative Larry Inman and a small but enthusiastic team waded through shoe-sucking bird poop to visit a lagoon beach we called the Inman Site (because Larry identified it on TIGHAR’s Aerial Tour of Nikumaroro as a candidate castaway campsite) and then hacked on across the island to the sea in about half an hour. Our ability to do so suggests that had someone walking down the windward beach wanted to, she or he could have accessed the lagoon pretty easily. We found no evidence of a campsite, but on the ocean side we did find the low-tide reef flat totally covered in sea cucumbers – a hitherto unknown possible castaway food source.

8. Quite a few divers, snorklers, and a glass-bottomed boat scanned the reef in the neighborhood of the putative Earhart landing site, with negative results – but as one of my wiser colleagues once said, negative data are positive data.

9. We brought back a number of artifacts from the colonial village for analysis – the cosmetic containers, the combs, and some possible if unlikely airplane parts. We’ll see what they have to tell us; at the very least they’ll enrich our understanding of the village and the role played by aluminum (aircraft-derived and other) in the lifeways of its residents.

All in all, I’d call the trip a successful venture. I’m grateful to the Republic of Kiribati for permitting it, to Kiribati on-board representative Nina Jacob for facilitating it, to Betchart Expeditions for making it happen, to Dawn, Tom, Barb, and the other TIGHARs who worked tirelessly to oversee and handle the details, and to all the participants who put up with high seas and my boring lectures in order to take part..

Oh crap; they're back!  Kiakia (fairy terns) watch our arrival on Niku. Photo by Joe Cerniglia