|Volume 15, 1999
pp. 5 – 11
expedition’s first mission was to determine whether the anecdotal accounts
gathered in Funafuti at the end of Niku III in 1997 might lead directly
to discovery of the main body of wreckage and, thus, permit the Niku IIII
expedition to be organized as an archaeological recovery operation. Recognizing
that the identification of conclusive Earhart wreckage would, by definition,
put those artifacts at risk, this purpose of the expedition was not widely
publicized. No such wreckage was found on this trip, so the point is now
moot. The secondary mission of the expedition was as a preparatory operation
to gather information for Niku IIII, an intensive search operation now scheduled
for 2001. The specific objectives of the expedition were:
- Test the hypothesis
that airplane parts could be found in the dense beachfront vegetation
of Nutiran district near a “European-style house,” per an anecdotal
account by Tapania Taiki who was interviewed by TIGHAR on Funafuti in
1997 (see TIGHAR Tracks
Vol. 13, No.1: “I saw pieces of an airplane...”). Ms.
Taiki lived on Nikumaroro as a young teenager with her family in the
late 1950s/early 1960s just before the settlement was abandoned.
- Conduct a reconnaissance
of the beachfront areas on the lagoon shore where Pulekai Songivalu,
interviewed by TIGHAR on Funafuti in 1997, said he saw airplane wreckage
when he served as the island’s schoolmaster during the late 1950s/early
1960s. Mr. Songivalu is Ms. Taiki’s father.
- Conduct a reconnaissance
of Kanawa Point, one of three geographical locations identified by TIGHAR
researchers as possibly fitting the description of where a castaway’s
remains and campsite were discovered by Gerald B. Gallagher, Officer-in-Charge,
Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, in September 1940.
- Familiarize the
project’s forensic anthropologist, Dr. Karen Ramey Burns, with the site
where shoe parts were found during Niku II in 1991 (known as the “Aukeraime
Site”) and conduct a further investigation of the site with the aid
of remote-sensing data gathered during Niku III in 1997. The Aukeraime
Site is the second candidate for where the bones were found in 1940.
- Familiarize Dr.
Burns with the site near the southeast end of the island where village-related
artifacts were found during Niku IIIP in 1996. This is the third location
suspected of being where Gallagher’s discovery took place.
team assembled to conduct these operations consisted of:
||TIGHAR Executive Director
|Karen Ramey Burns,
| John Clauss
||Veteran of Niku I,
II, IIIP, III, and the Kanton Mission
|| Veteran of Niku I,
II, IIIP, and III
|Richard “Skeet” Gifford
Member of TIGHAR’s
Board of Directors and project sponsor
||Veteran of Niku III
|Jerry Ann Jurenka
||TIGHAR member and
||TIGHAR member and
||Veteran of Niku I,
II, IIIP, and the Kanton Mission
||Veteran of Niku III
||Member of TIGHAR’s
Board of Directors, veteran of the Kanton Mission, and project sponsor
||TIGHAR member and
Accompanying the expedition as an official representative of the Republic
of Kiribati was Senior Examining Officer, Kiribati Customs, Manikaa Teuatabo.
Mr. Teuatabo also accompanied the Niku II and Niku IIIP expeditions.
Standing, from left:
Kar Burns, Russ Matthews, Ron Rich, Skeet Gifford, Jerry Jurenka, Veryl
Kneeling: Gary Quigg,
Ric Gillespie, Chris Kennedy, John Clauss, Van Hunn Not pictured: Dick
Reynolds, Manikaa Teuatabo. TIGHAR Photo.
cost to TIGHAR for the Niku IIIIP expedition was:
Equipment and incidentals
team members paid their own airfare
|The cost of the Fiji
Bone Search was:
Meals and incidentals
team member paid her own airfare
to these direct expenses, TIGHAR’s operating expenses during the period
of preparation and execution of the expeditions (February through July,
1999) were roughly $90,000.
Total –- $207,523
Team flies to Fiji
and boards expedition vessel Nai’a at port of Lautoka. One large
bag of expedition gear (with essentials such as metal detectors and
laptop computer) is missing and it takes two days to track it down and
get it to Fiji. When the bag finally arrives the screen of the laptop
has been cracked in transit, but the computer is still usable.
departs Fiji. Once clear of Fijian waters, seas become quite high (approximately
seven meters) with head winds and conficting currents slowing progress
at times to a little as 6 knots. Structural problems with the mast prevent
the use of the sail with consequent loss of its stabilizing and fuel
sets course for Fiji. Photo courtesy J. Clauss.
high seas make for an unpleasant passage. No one can go out on the exposed
decks, the galley is limited in what foods can be prepared and served, spills
and breakage are commonplace, and just moving about requires constant vigilance.
Most of the team is seasick to at least some degree and a few are truly
rough ride to Niku brought back memories of the storms of 1997. Photo
courtesy J. Clauss.
rain squalls and a wet welcome back to Nikumaroro. Photo courtesy J. Clauss.
arrived at Nikumaroro just before dark the previous evening, the team goes
ashore at 07:45 and spends the day surveying and building a trail from the
landing to the shore of the lagoon passage where a skiff, walked in over
the reef at high tide, will be based to ferry the team over to Nutiran.
Seas in the lee of the island are relatively calm – a welcome relief. However,
tropical downpours during the day make the heavy work of clearing the trail
through the jungle a soggy endeavor. It is also discovered that the ship’s
water maker, which had been unusable during the voyage out due to the extreme
rolling, is not working. Without the ability to make fresh water the expedition
must depend entirely upon the tanks of water aboard the ship. This supply
should be adequate if carefully conserved, but luxuries such as laundry
are out of the question.
In the morning
a base camp is established on the Nutiran shore and base lines are “shot
in” with the pulse laser from known features on the village shore to
permit accurate mapping of the search area. More heavy rain slows the
work. In the afternoon, the team begins the process of setting out grid
lines 20 meters square in the sector where aerial photography indicates
there was once a structure which may be the “European style house.”
Nearby, the 1953 photo also shows a cruciform feature in the beachfront
vegetation which looks alarmingly similar to an aircraft. Hopes are
high for a significant discovery but the day’s searching yields no sign
of a European style house (a structure built of wood frame and boards
rather than local materials), let alone an airplane. A grave about four
feet in length is found not far from the beachfront. Like the grave
excavated on Aukeraime in 1991 and found to be that of an infant, this
burial seems to be anomalous in the context of the island settlement
and fits folklore about bones said to have been found and buried on
Nutiran by the early settlers.
for the “European style house.” L to R, Ron Rich, Veryl Fenlason,
Van Hunn, Jerry Ann Jurenka, Ric Gillespie. Photo courtesy J. Clauss.
gridding and searching reveal a scattering of cultural material (nails,
wire, cans, etc.) indicating that a structure of some kind once stood
on the spot where the putative European style house is seen in the 1953
aerial photo, but the absence of boards or framing suggests that the
structure was made from local materials. An area around the grave is
cleared and, after consultation with Dr. Burns, the decision is made
to seek permission from the Kiribati representative to excavate the
After a discussion at the grave site with Senior Examining Officer
Manikaa Teuatabo, permission to excavate is granted
and digging begins. Meanwhile, a detailed search of the area where the
cruciform object appears in the photo finds only vegetation and what
may be a broken oarlock – possibly from one of the lifeboats from the
SS Norwich City. Two divers, Van Hunn and Jerry Jurenka, inspect
the lagoon passage and inshore reef area at high tide for any anomalous
material. The results are negative. Search operations are extended northward
along the Nutiran shore in the hope of finding something that better
fits the description of a European style house.
site of the “European style house.” TIGHAR photo by R.
Late in the day,
Chris Kennedy comes upon boards and sheets of corrugated metal. Further
investigation reveals the ruins of a structure incorporating wood framing
and boards. There are pipes, a faucet, and even a shower head. It seems
quite likely that this was a European style house but it does not seem
to be present in the 1953 aerial photos. Plantings of coconut and pandanus
just inland from this location support the possibility that this structure
is a relic of development in the later days of the settlement. That
would conform to Ms. Taiki’s time on the island in the late 1950s. Among
the debris where the house once stood is a small (1.5 inch by 5 inch)
piece of aluminum aircraft skin which had been cut through rivet holes
along one long edge. The presence of zinc chromate corrosion inhibitor
would appear to disqualify it as being from Earhart’s aircraft.
On doctor’s orders,
one team member with a foot infection remains aboard ship and is on
antibiotics. Ashore, while Dr. Burns and two assistants, Quigg and Gifford,
proceed with the grave excavation, the rest of the team begins to lay
out grids and search the area southward from the newly identified European
house. Heavy iron debris from the shipwreck is found as much as ten
meters back into the beachfront vegetation along the shoreline directly
in front of and southward from the Norwich City, but no aluminum or
aircraft-related material is in evidence. Because it will be roughly
the half-way point in the expedition, the following day is declared
a “day off” for anyone who needs to take a break. Aboard ship, the water
maker is still not working.
On this “day off”
the entire team turns out for duty except for two people with minor
injuries. Further gridding and searching southward from the European
house fail to turn up anything of interest. Dr. Burns’ team reaches
the interment in the grave and finds the bones of a two or three year
old child. As previously agreed, as soon as the grave is established
to be unrelated to the Earhart mystery, further excavation ceases and
the grave is later restored to its original condition and appearance.
At 13:00 a satellite
telephone communication with TIGHAR’s office in Delaware brings the
news that Dr. Tom King in Fiji has interviewed a former resident of
Nikumaroro who reports having seen aircraft wreckage (heavy structures,
not aluminum sheet) on the reef north of the Norwich City shipwreck
in the years prior to WWII (1939-1941). Reports dating from the late
1950s had placed scattered aircraft wreckage on the reef and along the
shoreline south of the shipwreck. This new information matchs our previously
formulated hypothesis that the landing had been made on the reef and
the airplane destroyed by surf action, but indicates a more northerly
specific location than we had previously contemplated.
remains of the 1929 shipwreck. New information alleges that aircraft
debris was once located just north (to the right in this photo) of
the wreck. Photo courtesy V. Fenlason.
Later in the afternoon
Gillespie and Clauss conduct a reconnaissance of the lagoon shore in
the area where Mr. Songivalu reported seeing airplane wreckage. While
access to the area by skiff is not as difficult as had been anticipated,
the beachfront vegetation is quite heavy in most areas until a low ridge
of land about 50 meters inland from the lagoon shore marks the beginning
of open Buka (Pisonia grandis) forest. A variety of lightweight
flotsam (plastic, styrofoam, etc.) indicates that this first 50 meters
of shoreline is occasionally subject to flooding, but conducting a thorough
search of the entire shoreline by visual means would be labor intensive
and time consuming.
hover near 100 degrees Fahrenheit as they have since the team’s arrival
on the island. Shifting the Nutiran shoreline search northward based
on the new information, the team begins inspecting the dense beachfront
scaevola from the point of land just off the bow of the Norwich
City wreck and working northward. In an attempt to inspect open
areas inland, Gillespie leads several team members into vegetation
so thick that it takes hours to cut their way out and resume an organized
search. The methodology developed for searching what can only be described
as the beachfront scaevola wall is for transects to be cut into the
bush on a heading 90 degrees to the shoreline and flagged with colored
tape. The flagged transects are spaced 25 meters apart and go back
into the scaevola far enough to be well beyond any evidence of washed
up material (typically 30 or 40 meters). Searchers then space themselves
along the beach closely enough to be sure they can visually cover
the area between themselves and their colleagues on either side –
and start cutting their way in, staying on line as much as possible,
much like the beaters in an old-fashioned tiger hunt. When the line
reaches the end of the flagged transects the searchers make their
way back to beach, move down to the next block, and start all over
Fenlason and John Clauss shoot in a line in dense scaevola. Photo
courtesy Richard Gifford.
Yet another grave
is identified on the point just off the bow of Norwich City but
excavation is not an option due to lack of remaining time. In the afternoon,
at low tide, an inspection of the reef north of Norwich City permits
a preliminary evaluation of areas that appear flat and smooth enough
to permit a Lockheed 10 to land intact. That evening aboard Nai’a
the water maker is still not working despite heroic attempts at repair
by the ship’s crew. Team members accomplish some semblance of laundry
by showering fully clothed. Quasi-clean clothes are then dried overnight
in the ship’s drier.
In the morning,
while most of the team continues to work northward along the Nutiran
shore, cutting 40 meter transects back into the bush at five to ten
meter intervals, Gillespie, Matthews, Clauss and Burns conduct a reconnaissance
of Kanawa Point. The cove just east of the Point is found to be very
deep in soft silt, making the landing of a skiff difficult (and dangerous
if you don’t realize that what looks like a sandy bottom is, in effect,
quicksand. Hop out of the boat to push it ashore and – gloop – you’re
gone). Kanawa Point, while probably originally quite open and pleasant
when shaded by Kanawa trees, is now so covered in dense scaevola as
to be impossible to search visually from any practical standpoint. On
the lagoon shore across the cove to the east of Kanawa Point, a feature
first noted by Tom King in 1989 was noted. The coral shelf above the
water line is strewn with the shells of an estimated 300 giant clams
over an area easily 20 meters long by perhaps 5 meters wide. In some
cases the shells have been there so long as to be cemented into the
coral and, in at least one spot, a number of shells are neatly stacked,
back to front. There is no doubt that this is where a human or humans
harvested, opened, and possibly ate clams. A few clams still grow in
the surrounding shallow water. A scattering of shells was also found
on the shore of Kanawa Point itself.
Point. Photo courtesy J. Clauss.
The Aukeraime Site
was also visited briefly. There has been a significant increase in lagoon
shore scaevola growth since TIGHAR’s last visit in 1997. A metal detector
inspection of a spot where remote-sensing data gathered in 1997 suggested
there might be metal in the ground was negative. With time short, a
decision was made to forego a visit to the southeast corner of the island.
In the afternoon,
at low tide, further inspections and measurements were taken on the
reef flat north of Norwich City and the pulse laser was employed
to measure the length of areas that were smooth enough to permit a safe
landing. The longest area measured was 213 meters (700 feet). It has
been estimated that Earhart’s aircraft, at near empty weight and landing
into a 10 to 15 knot wind as is common on the reef flat, could come
to a stop in as little as 91 meters (300 feet).
With one more full
day of work remaining before the ship must depart for Fiji, the water
maker is finally working.
Inspection of the
heavy beachfront vegetation north of Norwich City continues.
In addition to the search conducted at the southern tip of Nutiran in
the area around the initially supposed “European style house” and the
gridding and searching done near the ruin that does seem to fit that
description, the entire length of the Nutiran beachfront from the north
point southward to the west point just below the shipwreck, a distance
of some 700 meters (nearly half a mile) has been searched visually to
a depth into the vegetation of 30 to 40 meters The search turns up no
aircraft-related debris. Norwich City debris is present on the
reef and in the first few meters of beachfront vegetation from a point
perhaps 50 meters north of the bow to at least 500 meters southwestward
down the beach. The reef and shoreline north of the wreck are free of
any type of cultural debris other than flotsam and these occur primarily
on the open beach and in the first 20 meters of vegetation. After nine
solid days of heavy physical labor in the intense heat, many team members
are becoming dangerously exhausted.
to leave. L to R, Dick Reynolds, Jerry Ann Jurenka, Chris Kennedy,
Russ Matthews, Veryl Fenlason, Gary Quigg, and Van
Hunn. Photo courtesy J. Clauss.
day. The skiff must be brought out of the lagoon by noon at high tide
and the morning is spent finishing up some last minute searching, breaking
camp and recovering all of the equipment back across the lagoon passage.
By 14:00, everything and everyone is off the island and that evening Nai’a
sets a course for Fiji.
As if to make up
for the rough outward passage, the trip back to Fiji is smooth and fast,
arriving in the port of Suva a full day ahead of schedule. This permits
us to terminate the charter a day early and thus save nearly $5,000.
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