2001: Niku IIII

Daily Expedition Reports

Reports are in reverse date order so that those who check every day don't have to scroll down endlessly as the expedition progresses.
September 13
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September 12
September 11
September 10
September 9
September 8
September 7

There are four working days left in the expedition, and the heat is on.

Well, the heat has been on, really (who left that thermostat set to 120°?). It’s always tough at this point, though, when there’s been no EUREKA find, and people have lost their perspective. Those who’ve been through it before recognize the symptoms and have another drink of water, but the new folks have to experience it for themselves: the desperate urge to do something, anything, to rush about and look everywhere at once, try a new approach, flap around. The press before the expedition was so focused on the idea of finding some marvelous artifact out on the reef edge, and it’s hard to put that aside and concentrate properly on the real work.

Now is the time when it is most essential to keep the faith, keep pushing forward with the plan, lose the desperation, and realize that the expedition has already been wildly successful, and that the final results will be whatever they are.

Even the most experienced people are not totally immune to this syndrome. The plan from the beginning has always been to completely excavate the hole at the Seven site to be sure it did not contain any human bones or teeth. This is painstaking, hard, heavy, nasty work, but essential.

Other work that could be done at the Seven site is to excavate the various “units” – deposits of animal bones and other items which might provide some general clues as to how the site was used. This would be useful information, but not essential.

Unfortunately, both things cannot be done at the same time, due to lack of assets – personnel, screens, and so on. Some would like to take the broader approach, and it is Ric’s job to maintain the focus.

Another change that has come over the group is a sudden lack of enthusiasm for camping out on the island. After the Crab Experience a number of people suddenly found it slightly less inviting to sprawl for the night on the beach and bask in the moonlight. Further acquaintance with Aukaraime North reinforces that lesson. Kar was playing with a four inch long centipede that Ric says is the ugliest thing he ever saw, and Jim hightailed it out of the scaevola after encountering a spider with a body about 3 inches across. He didn’t wait around to see what it might eat, fearing that he might be on the menu himself. Add to these lovely creatures the crabs and the rats, and sleeping at sea seems truly desirable, no matter how one feels about boats.

Yesterday the Dive team worked in the lagoon off Taraia point (opposite the mouth of Tatiman Passage).

Ric and Bill took metal detectors and worked the lagoon shore just off the the village at Club Fred (see yesterday’s report). They found village-related stuff there: bits of this and that, a Jeep tire, that sort of thing, out to about 20 meters off shore. After that, there was nothing until about 50 meters off shore, when they started finding big chunks of rusty iron, obviously Norwich City debris. These chunks were buried fairly deep, and required two people to excavate: one to dig with mask and snorkel, and one to chase away a five foot shark who insisted on participating in the work. He had brought two or three of his younger brothers along, and it was like trying to work with a street gang hanging around and snickering at you. At one point the big one had Bill treed on a coral head. And you never have a live feed camera when you need one...

Today the Dive team will abandon their visual search from manta boards, which wasn’t working very well due to lack of visibility, and will start doing metal detector sweeps, hoping to pick up the debris trail. They will work in the area more than 50 meters off shore – beyond the depth Ric and Bill could work – and around the coral heads.

John and Van will install the Norwich City plaque while Ric collects tidal information out on the reef near the Norwich City. Then Van will rejoin the divers, and John and Ric will work the Taraia scaevola with metal detectors, which promises to be brutal. They will be in sectors WO10, WO11, WP12, and WP13. Everyone else will continue at the Seven site.

Everyone on the team has had messages from or talked to the people they needed to know were safe. Ric tells me that there was, on the island, the same sense of stunned disbelief the rest of us are feeling. They worked and accomplished things and covered territory, but with a sense of unreality and inconsequence. But as Ric pointed out – by the time things are wrapped up at Niku and they have found whatever they have found, if the news is good, well, people need good news right now. So a real effort was made by all and much was done.

Yesterday the Dive team worked along the lagoon shore north of “Club Fred” – the place where, in 1989, we pitched our big tent as a headquarters. The coordinates are WH16 and WI17.

There is a lot of stuff in this general area, mostly from the Norwich City. Apparently, during storms, the debris goes around the corner and settles out in this neighborhood. The dive team will continue to work in this area as well as out in the lagoon proper.

At the Seven site the hole is down a further 10 cm. Nothing yet, but at this depth the hole is still very confused, with scaevola roots growing through and coral rubble from the surface mixed in with the dirt. The team plans to take the hole down until they reach undisturbed dirt. It’s nasty work, very hot and heavy and picky... “the most mind-numbing job on the planet.” (“Calvin & Hobbes”)

Tom and his gang worked the animal bone sites, getting a handle on the depth and breadth of each deposit. There are all kinds of bones there – turtles, birds, fish – but each in a discreet small site, rather than one big midden. This would tend to indicate that someone (our castaway) was bringing multiple food items to the area and eating each separately, rather than a group putting on one big picnic. It would make sense to avoid, while eating, areas where one had eaten before, given the activities of the crabs and, of course, the certain smell that garbage would generate for a few days. There is also considerable evidence of crude implements fashioned from available objects.

John and Bill spent some time at the old Loran station. What they did not find was more interesting than anything they found. There were no rolls or stacks or pieces of green roofing material as was found at the Seven site; they found some screening, but it was quite different from that at our site. This suggests that the USCG fellows did not spend any time at the Seven site; it was merely a place they passed through, at best. The artifacts therefore almost certainly come either from Gallagher’s search or our castaway.

I talked more than Ric did, again; they are hungry for news and it’s hard to convey the current situation over a scratchy satellite link. But the team continues to work, and is making progress. Life goes on.

A day like today is the hardest part of an expedition to Nikumaroro.

When Ric calls, it’s 5:30 in the morning his time. They don’t get a lot of news; not too many NPR stations have enough transmitter power to get Morning Edition to the Phoenix Islands. Whatever news they get comes from me.

Two people aboard the boat – the film crew – live in New York City. Others have relatives and close friends who live there, or who work at the Pentagon. Several others have close ties to the airlines, including United, and know everyone.

And there’s nothing they can do. Wait, get updates from me or others via satellite phone, wait some more. And try to do the work.

So far, the news is good – those with friends or relatives in New York or at the Pentagon will get reports tomorrow morning that all is well, and no doubt will be energized and ebullient at the news. But for today... they wait.

Yesterday the Dive team worked in Tatiman Passage and towards the mouth of the passage (into the lagoon) to get more of a feel for how the delta works and what it looks like. They are using metal detectors and probes and trying to acquire a profile view of the sand deposits in order to predict, if that is possible, where stuff might end up.

At the Seven site, the team took the “skull hole” down to 50 cm in a 2 meter square. The excavation was laid out oriented North/South with the apparent hole center at the middle of the square. In the southwest corner of the square, they discovered obvious sign of a much smaller excavated area – white surface rubble down at the 50cm level, and the soil obviously disturbed. This is evidence of an original small hole (to bury a skull?) which was excavated (but the excavator didn't get the hole centered?) and then collapsed in on itself over time.

Sure fits our hypothesis. We aren’t to the bottom yet.

Due to the fact that most of the news passed from me to Ric today, this report is short... on the other hand, nothing that much happened at Nikumaroro. We’ll make up for it tomorrow.

The Dive team scouted along the edge of the sand bar at the lagoon side of Tatiman Passage to get the lay of the land, through blocks WJ16, WK15, WL14, WL13, and WK12. It’s very tough going with visibility at only 2 feet. They are working off manta boards, which have their risks, but are safer than running headlong into coral outcroppings. At least this way the manta board hits the coral first.

They have found that the sand is only soft and permeable in the sand bar for the first couple of feet. After that, it is packed into a solid mass, impenetrable to probes. If there is anything buried there, you’d have to know exactly where it is to have much chance of finding it, and the sand bar has, we know, built out a number of meters since 1940.

Tomorrow they will begin sampling the area at intervals with probes and metal detectors in the hope of picking up a debris trail.

Bill and Jim went to Aukaraime South to take a look at an area Tom was curious about (dubbed Tom’s Triangle). They found only one artifact, a .30 caliber shell casing. One interesting thing about this is that finding almost nothing there gives much more credence to the idea that something unusual was going on at the Seven Site.

At the Seven site it was another day of hard work without much result. The team has finished screening the backfill and is about half way down into the hole itself without result – not too surprising, as the assumption has been that anything detached from the skull would be in the bottom of the hole. That is, of course, if we’re right about the hole. Once the work on the hole is finished, the manpower and screens will be turned to the other areas of the site which we know are productive.

Skeet and Ric spent the day aboard Nai’a cataloging artifacts, 47 in all so far, some of them bags of little bones from birds and fish. There are odd little objects, obviously technological in origin, parts of assemblies and things that were portable, but nothing clearly identifiable yet. It will take a lot of work to i.d. the things found so far.

Ric also did a site map of the features and metal detector hits at the Seven site so far, while Skeet got everything logged into an Excel spreadsheet, along with all the GPS waypoint data – essential for managing the site and keeping track of where everything came from once we leave.

Today is a day off. The Gallagher plaque rededication was to happen at about 10 a.m., and then back to the boat for R&R.

Tomorrow the team expects to finish screening the hole; to verify clam populations along the lagoon shore; and to move into the already established archeological sites in the Seven site. A small group will also break away and do some exploring between the Seven site and the Loran station to make sure that Laxton’s “house built for Gallagher” isn’t lurking about down there somewhere. The assumption has been that that “house” is whatever shelter was put up while searching the castaway’s campsite at the Seven site, but it would be nice to be sure.

There was an adventure aboard Nai’a yesterday. A hot water line burst in the engine room and sprayed the port generator with water, causing it to fail. So they switched over to the starboard generator, which promptly quit. After about two hours dead in the water they got the starboard generator going again, and repairs were able to commence on the water line, but such are the joys of a life at sea – something is always breaking. It didn’t affect the team’s activities, but did lend a slight air of desperation and reality to the whole day.

Tom, Kar and John (with camera man Mark in attendance) also had an adventure during their overnight stay on the island the night before last. It seems that the crabs on that part of the island are much more aggressive than elsewhere.

They went out to the ocean beach to build a little campfire and have supper. While they were eating, someone heard a noise, and on firing up a flashlight... were surrounded by hundreds of juvenile coconut crabs, creeping and rustling and watching for their chance to claw in on the meal. Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) have a lengthy juvenile phase during which they wear found shells, like hermit crabs, until they grow too big for the available stock of shells. Then they grow a hardened carapace of their own and just keep growing – up to 50 pounds, in fact.

Needless to say, the Sand People decided to bed down elsewhere than near the food, which was guaranteed to be a source of noise if nothing else all night. So they went some distance away and prepared for a good night’s sleep.


All the crabs appeared to say, “Oh, look! These people have died!” and spent all night tromping about and taking nips and fiddling with their hair and just generally being pests.

One crawled up inside Mark’s shorts, which caused quite a stir in camp. John was awakened from a brief nap by the feeling of something playing with his hair, and when he reached back to swat the (he supposed) little crab away he was unhappily surprised to meet with considerable resistance and the awareness that this was not a juvenile, but a bruiser of massive proportions. The big guys can nip off your finger without even noticing it, so John found it convenient to hop up and use an implement, rather than tender flesh, to discourage Crabzilla. All in all, it was not what you’d call a restful night and an air-conditioned, crab-free sleeping cabin looked much more attractive than it had previously.

It is a sobering thought, however, to imagine how this scene would play out with a castaway, weak, perhaps incapacitated and unable to move. Would the crabs simply eat a person alive?

Ric has spent the last two days cutting a “tunnel” through scaevola from the top right corner of the “7” to the ocean beach. The scaevola is incredibly dense, and the path measured out to just on 100 feet. That’s about 50 feet more than was the distance between the 7 and the beach in 1940 (per photographs), so the beach has built out there almost a foot a year. The path he cut is in the lower right hand corner of ER28.

After lunch Ric went on a solo mapping trek up the coastline on the lagoon shore. By capturing waypoints on the GPS that he can spot exactly on the satellite photo, the team can geo-reference the Seven site to the satellite map with great exactness and place a true grid on the area. The shore line he mapped runs through EQ29, EQ28, EO27 and EN26. It’s treacherous work. The shore line is lovely, but you have to watch your step very carefully. There is quicksand, the sun is a hammer, the coral ledges on the edge of the lagoon are very sharp, and it’s all too easy to get complacent and have blood running down your leg, or be stuck thigh deep.

If you look on your grid map at EQ29, you’ll see a light colored area in the lagoon just off shore there. That area is full of clams. In the 1938 photo, there are a number of trails from the Seven site to there, which leads to the idea that the castaway was accessing a good source of food that couldn’t run away.

A dead turtle (natural causes, apparently) was found on the beach, and Kar excavated it carefully, dissecting it and recovering the bones for comparison with bones found at the site. The team estimates that this turtle weighed between 200 and 300 pounds, a good size – and, of course, far larger than a castaway could manage. Probably the largest a single person could hope to deal with would be 100 pounds, and 50 would be more like it. You might possibly be able to kill a large turtle, but without help you wouldn’t move it.

The Dive team got set up for the lagoon dive and was planning to begin that today, in the two foot visibility.

The work is brutal. People spend all day shoveling heavy coral rubble and dirt into buckets, carrying the buckets about 50 feet to the screening area, dumping the buckets in small increments into the screen that someone is shaking down and examining for artifacts... repeat, ad lib. The thermometer Ric had stuck in his pocket, soaking wet, in a breeze, read 100°F.

The entire team will stand down tomorrow for a much-needed rest. There is much work to do cleaning, photographing, and cataloging artifacts, and that is a job that must be done aboard ship. Ric and Skeet were going to begin that process today, and it will continue tomorrow.

Yesterday the Dive team concluded their ocean-based search. They have worked the reef face and down to a depth of about 60 feet from the landing channel to the northwest tip of the island, and have found nothing.

Today they were to begin moving their gear to a base on the lagoon shore so they can get started in there. Operations in the lagoon will be more technologically based, because visibility is so poor – for one thing, they will have to place markers that can be seen at the surface and left for some days, so as to know where they’ve been. A challenging environment, to be sure.

They plan to get started diving tomorrow. Map references are WL13, WL14, and WJ15.

By chance, a new member of TIGHAR has been corresponding with me here in Delaware concerning the dynamics and structure of islands such as Nikumaroro. Without going into the technical analysis here (that is a subject for a future Project Bulletin), he feels it is very likely that any debris from an aircraft would, in fact, be swept through Tatiman Passage and into the delta at the head of the lagoon. This is where dive operations will be centered.

Things are moving slowly and methodically at the Seven Site, with no new dramatic discoveries. The entire area is being treated as an archeological site, which necessitates an approach characterized by caution and close observation, rather than dashing about.

The clam shell site (see the daily report for Saturday, September 1) was gridded, mapped, and recovered by Tom King. He found 15 clams, and a good number of them had been opened by being smashed with a rock... not a characteristic of the way I-Kiribati (who have knives) open clams. This tends to make one think of a castaway making do.

The 1996 bird bone site was cleared, mapped, and collected. Kar now has the bones and will be examining them to figure out how many individual birds (one, more than one?) the bones represent. (See Gallagher’s Clues for more details about and photos of the site.)

After lunch Ric and some of the others took a tour up through the buka forest. It is an amazing place, almost cathedral-like. There is some indication of human activity evident – a small glass bottle, some discarded plastic, that sort of thing. They have not done any metal detecting there yet. The map reference is EQ28.

One result of the early work of the expedition is clear: coconut crabs do indeed go off with bones. Very aggressively, in fact. Most of the lamb laid out the first day on the island is gone. Tom King also brought cooked bones (leftovers from dinner) ashore, wrapped in an old shirt and tied up with a belt, and left the bundle out. Within a very short period of time the bundle was a ball of juvenile coconut crabs, with dozens more in the surrounding trees waiting to see how it went. Shortly thereafter the bundle was in shreds and all the food was gone.

Tom, John and Kar stayed ashore last night to do the UV search. There’ll be a report on that tomorrow, one way or the other. They were planning to concentrate on the backfill from the hole discovered in 1996, which they had dug and screened yesterday.

During that process, one of those OH NO incidents came up... “Looks like we’ve got another can label, guys.” (See Dating the Label Fragment.) Groans all around... paper labels mean recent technology. But a little while later they figured out that the label was from the new shovel they’d bought in Pago. Ooops.

Ric had another look at the g feature. It was not only deliberately formed by gathering of white coral to place against the darker gray coral; the materials were gathered right there in that clearing. If the person fashioning this feature had gone out to the beach, there is a lot of white coral that could be gathered very quickly there. Back in the central part of the island, white coral is rare, and gathering it is a tedious and painstaking operation. The difference is clear: the beach coral is much smoother, more eroded. Why would someone expend all that effort?

Today is day 10 of the island work, midway. Usually on this day the work is to break down and retrieve and leave. This time the team has the luxury of just getting well started. Everyone is acclimated. The truly hard work (clearing, mostly) is done, and they have a valid archeological site on which they can use their brains. We don't know, of course, if the site is for real, but with a team this good and the time to spend on it we can surely find out.

Yesterday the divers worked about half the distance between the channel and the Norwich City, looking at the sand ledge which runs between about ten and 20 meters deep. There is only about six inches of sand on the ledge – not enough to cover anything important. They still have negative results. They will continue up the reef to the Norwich City today, and tomorrow will begin in the lagoon.

One of the benefits of diving the reef at Nikumaroro is the great clarity of the ocean water surrounding the island. The lagoon is another story – murky, visibility about two feet, and not exactly a recreational experience.

The campers did not camp last night because it poured buckets. That was shifted to tonight instead.

The Seven Site continues to produce Stuff, some of which makes sense in the context of our hypothesis, and some of which does not (so what else is new?).

Item: A piece of very heavy glass, so heavy it looks like it might be from the lens of a ship light (maybe the Norwich City?). It has one very sharp edge that looks like it has been fashioned to be sharp. Tom says that, under the poor magnification available in the field, he thinks he sees signs of wear on this sharpened edge. This is an artifact that will take expert analysis back home, but can be defined by the proper expert.

Item: Two .22 caliber long shell casings, stamped on the base with a P. The Forum says that that is the mark of the Peters Co. of Connecticut. Gallagher had a Colt .22 automatic pistol.

Item: More plate shards, and one of them is clearly marked “U.S. Coast Guard.” We suspect the guys were down there doing a little target practice with (it is to be hoped) already broken crockery.

Items: Numerous, that can’t be identified in the field. It is obvious that there are at least three layers of use on this site: the castaway, Gallagher and his team, and the Coast Guard fellows.

One truly odd thing was found by Ric. He was trying to figure out if a particular tree in the Seven Site was the one he could see from the lagoon, so he was casting around towards the lagoon in search of places to take a sighting on the tree. He broke into a clearing that is not part of the Seven site, but is much closer to the lagoon, and found a ... marker? hard to know what to call it ... that someone had made, using white coral harvested from the open area, and laid out on the gray coral rubble pretty much in the shape of a lower case g. A g like this one, as if a typeset letter, two loops with a small connector between them. It was certainly deliberate. It is also the sort of thing that could easily be interpreted to death. Gallagher, by the way, did not make his g’s that way.... Who knows what it means?

The plan for the next few days is to grid and map and pick over any concentration of artifacts, and to do metal detector searches for such concentrations. Additionally, the team will be picking through the fill from the hole, which Tom says is as likely to contain teeth as the hole itself.

Everyone is getting tired, and people are going to bed earlier and earlier. Not exactly a Party Boat. But ten hours’ sleep or so sets you up for the next day pretty well.

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