2001: Niku IIII


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 6
If you are new to this page, just click on the earliest date to the left (down at the bottom of the list) and then scroll up to read each posting in order.
September 5
September 4
September 3
September 2
September 1
August 31

The Grave team continued work on Grave Three yesterday without result. Excavating to the two meter level (a square 2 meters by 2 meters by 2 meters) found nothing but dirt. They then extended the northern wall of the excavation an additional meter, and when that also turned up empty they decided to call it off. The hole will be backfilled. The coral slabs could be property markers.

Because of the negative results they were done by noon. The engine on the aluminum skiff is only 20hp, and not very reliable, so rather than attempting to join the Seven site team Kar, Gary and Ric went back aboard Nai’a to do paperwork. Ric caught up on his photo log and Kar was able to write up the results of the excavation.

Speaking of engines in poor condition – yesterday morning when Kar, Gary and Ric were heading out in the aluminum boat, Ric went to twist the throttle and the whole thing disintegrated in his hand. Well, Ric isn’t a mechanic. Unfortunately, neither is Kar nor Gary, so Ric enlisted the rich vocabulary provided by his Army years and managed to put the thing back together. Make it do or do without at Niku, and anything was better than drifting around that lagoon all day.

Bill and Chris did their walkabout, generating negative results and many jokes about marooning lawyers on a desert isle. Bill’s ok now.

At the Seven site the process of final clearing and set up as an archeological site was completed. Not a lot of searching was done, but John did some prospecting with a metal detector and found a few M-1 carbine shells (left by the Coast Guardsmen). Tom also found a metal artifact. It is a clip sort of thing, about three inches by two inches, semicircular, a spring-type thing, lightweight and thin. Definitely not ship stuff which tends to be heavy and bronze or brass. Certainly technological, and lends further credence to the idea that the castaway was not a languishing Polynesian but someone with access to technology. We should be able to get a firm id. on it once it is back here and we can circulate photos.

They also found another plate shard, which tends to make one think that a plate got broken and abandoned, rather than a piece or two being salvaged as a possible tool.

The divers dove the reef edge from the landing channel to the Norwich City. Today they are planning to work deeper water and look at the sandy ledge which is down about 20 meters.

At the Seven site today’s activities will include further cleanup and careful clearing around the hole. Tonight, John, Tom and Kar will remain ashore and examine the area around the hole with the ultraviolet light brought along for this purpose. Bones and teeth fluoresce in UV, which coral rubble and other non-bone stuff does not. It is hoped that this will help find additional bones (since Gallagher and his crew found only 13). Without the light it would be extremely difficult to find small bones, especially, as coral rubble looks exactly like most of the smaller bones in the human body to the untutored eye.

Stay tuned.

The new schedule causes some yawning and slow starting, but works out well in the long run. Ric tells me he has not had time to look at a movie, listen to a CD, do anything except focus and work and fall into his rack. The three days’ down time on either end of the expedition are, in fact, very welcome.

Yesterday at the Grave site Kar, Gary, and Walt got down to two meters without finding an interment. The dark stain seen the day before petered out without result and the site seems to be a blank. Tomorrow Kar, Gary and Ric will extend the excavation to the north to see if anything is there; however, if another full day of work goes by without result the site will be abandoned. (Site reference is WD10.)

Tomorrow it is also planned that the divers will go back in the water at the channel and work northwards towards the Norwich City. One reason for this is that Ric, in flying over the area in the helicopter, saw light colored ... things ... at the base of the reef. Obviously, this could just be sand, but it’s worth checking out.

The real news is from the Seven Site.

First, let us recall one of the Laws:

TIGHAR’s Fifth Law of Expeditions:

No matter how you set the boundaries of your search area, artifacts will be found just outside of those boundaries, usually in an area which has been used heavily as a footpath by the entire team.

Everyone had been putting all their equipment down in an area which appeared to be uninteresting. Around lunch time, Tom reached for his day pack and found the strap tangled on something. When he dislodged it the “something” came with it.

“What does that look like to you?” he asked.

Ric repressed his first answer (a moose antler) and came up with — “a turtle bone?”

Yup. Skeletal structure of a turtle, no doubt about it.

So the “uninteresting” section was declared interesting, and it was cleared and gridded into two meter sections. The site is near the plate shard and asbestos fragment; it’s the most seaward face of the “hill” – a storm surge washup – facing the ocean. The area was dirty with turtle bones, bird bones (some blackened by fire), fish bones, some crustacean shells.... exactly as Gallagher described in his messages to headquarters. This is very exciting, but of course the big question is: Is this the castaway, or is this the work party taking a lunch break? One way of finding out is to id. the fish bones. Are they deep water fish – favored by the I-Kiribati – or are they the sort of reef fish that would be readily accessible to a castaway?

One of the main things the team will be looking for is anything that might be a beachcombed object fashioned into a tool. The shard of glass found September 1 may well fit into this category. It looks, on superficial examination, like it may have been chipped into a degree of sharpness along one edge. The plate shards are being reexamined for similar chipping in case this is incidental to normal wear in this environment.

The team really likes the Seven site at this time. It fits the descriptions, and if all those critter bones are there, well, human bones could have survived too. It really looks like a castaway’s campsite.

Plans for today include:

Bill and Chris will be dropped off at Baureke Passage (WW24) to walk down Aukaraime to EO34, which is a site Tom feels is a possibility for Gallagher’s references, and then around the tip by the Loran station (EV37) and join up with the rest of the team at the Seven site at ER29.

In extending the search at the Seven site, it’s worth detailing what this means. The area chosen is divided into blocks two meters on a side. A bucket is placed just outside the boundary. A team member sits inside the block, and picks up every piece of coral rubble and every piece of organic debris and places it in the bucket.

The team is finding not just fish bones but individual fish scales this way. Andrew is the best at finding stuff – his father is a paleontologist and he has spent many a summer doing just this sort of work. He is also a wonderful teacher, and can show the others how to “tune” their eyes and see what is there to be seen.

Today’s work will back off the brute force/massive ignorance clearing effort and set up for an excavation of a complex site of unknown dimensions.

Very exciting stuff.

Yesterday was supposed to be a day off, but – predictably – that only meant everyone worked harder than ever on projects of their own.

Skeet, Gary, and Ric (with the camera man, Mark) went out on the reef north of the Norwich City. They were planning to catch the very low tide predicted for 1133 and examine the reef surface with an eye to landing an airplane there. The tide actually went out and turned at 1240. The surface of the reef was not completely dry, but there was about a two hour period when there was less than one inch of water on the reef.

The entire stretch of reef from the wreck to the point, out near the reef edge, showed as a decent landable area, approximately 2400 feet long by 100 feet wide – about three times what you actually would need to land an Electra. The tide would have to be within one hour either side of low water, and there could not be any surf running past the engine of the Norwich City, because the surface is not nearly as good farther in towards the shore, but land an airplane there you could.

Jim, Chris, Walt and Andrew went exploring in the bush in Taraia, an area we’ve not covered in the past (WP12 & 13; WQ 12 & 13). They found extremely dense scaevola and not much else. When they emerged, Chris looked like they’d buried him and dug him back up, and Jim looked like an escapee from the latest Survivor episode.

John and Van installed the plaque on Gallagher’s grave. They’ll do the one on the Norwich City in a day or two; that promises to be much more difficult just because of the location.

Bill is still fighting his cold and is miserable. No one else has had any symptoms except Andrew, and he threw it off in a couple of days. Not anyone’s idea of a good time...

Today the plan was for the Dive team to stay out of the water and help with the land work. Walt was planning to join Gary and Kar in the grave excavation, and they were hoping to reach the level of the interment and begin the analytical work.

Everyone else was going to the Seven site to finish clearing and begin actual operations. They were taking the pulse laser with them to establish a datum and shoot in the artifacts found in 1996, preparatory to collecting such items as seemed interesting.

Today’s weather seemed promising: partial overcast and some showers. The sea is very calm, which helps a lot in the transfer of people to and from the ship. More of the same is in the forecast and the team is hoping it will stay that way.

There has been one schedule change: the day will now begin an hour earlier. The first boatload will go over the side at 7 a.m. local time, and pickups from the landing will begin at four.

Yesterday the Dive team finished diving north of the Norwich City with no results.

The Grave team got to the one meter level, and began to see a stain consistent with some sort of interment. But the “gravestone” is aligned lengthwise along this stain, like a marker rather than a headstone. Until the excavation is finished we won’t know what this signifies, but it is certainly rather odd.

The Seven site team cleared a swath from the tip of the seven closest to the lagoon to the water tank. The swath is about 10 meters wide and 100 meters long – brutal work in the heat and sun. Several more artifacts were found, including a rusted out metal box of some kind and a piece of clear broken glass the right thickness for a bottle that was very weathered, as if it had been in the beach for some time before it was found, and then brought to the site. One possibility is that the castaway found it beachcombing and used it for a knife, but other explanations are possible too. None of the artifacts have been collected; they are left in situ until they can be recorded correctly. The Seven Site artifacts are in the NW corner of ER29. See The Seven Site Project Bulletin for more information about this site.

Yesterday there were problems with the propellor on the outboard on the aluminum boat which slowed movement down considerably, and the work itself was difficult and frustrating – quite typical, in other words.

There is a consensus that the sensible thing to do today is to stand down and rest. Predictably, “resting” means going ashore and taking care of a myriad of small personal projects for the entire team. A “spring” tide is predicted for today – high highs and low lows – and at low tide, Skeet, Gary and Ric are planning to go out on the reef flat north of the Norwich City and look at it as a landing area. They plan to collect data including measurements, smoothness, water puddling, and so on, to see just how feasible a landing would be in that area.

Each of the three teams worked separately yesterday. The Dive team continued northward along the reef face, making slow but steady progress towards the ledge. So far no results, but even that is a result.

The Grave team began excavation in earnest, and got to the 70 centimeter level by quitting time. There is no sign of bones or other remains yet (no coffin, etc.) but in 1999 a similar grave was dug to the 150cm level before anything was found, so they’re only halfway.

The Seven Site team set to work clearing the search area, and a dreadful job it is. The sun is a hammer, the labor brutal, and the care needed extreme. They began clearing start at the tip of the short arm of the seven, nearest the lagoon, and got about 30 meters in on a path about 15 meters across, using the seven itself as a brush dump. This got them to the point where the shingles were found (see Gallagher’s Clues Part 2 for a sketch map of the site).

They hoped to get in to the tank and to the area of the hole today, but may need to stand down for a day after that to recover before continuing on. The Seven Site artifacts are in the NW corner of ER29. See The Seven Site Project Bulletin for more information about this site.


Ric was working with the Grave team after lunch, and about 1:30 they began to hear a strange sound. At first they assumed it was the skiff with the divers, but it didn’t sound right. So they went out on the beach, and of all strange sights to meet one’s eyes out there: a Hughes 500 helicopter on floats coming right at them! (The Hughes 500 is a very small craft.)

The chopper obviously didn’t see the gang, but circled around and landed apparently on the Nutiran mudflat. Ric raised Fritz on the radio, and asked him if he knew anything about this, but he didn’t. The only way a helicopter of this small size could possibly arrive at Nikumaroro was to have made most of the journey on the deck of a ship, and sure enough, before long here comes a purse seiner over the horizon.

Fritz raised them on the radio. They were a U.S. flagged vessel called Janine, 28 days out of Pago and headed back with eleven tons of tuna in the hold. They were just stopping in, they said, to let the guys stretch their legs and maybe do a little fishing; they didn’t know anything about the search or the expedition.

Fritz took the opportunity to inform them that there was a representative of the government of Kiribati aboard... and there was a long and awful silence, then some quick backtracking on the subject of fishing – “Only if we can get permission, of course.” With this ace in the hole, Mr. Teuatabo helped us cut a deal. They got to do some fishing; Ric and the camera man got to go for a picture-taking ride in the helicopter. (Janine also donated three enormous tuna to the larder.)

They got stills and video of the entire island, all the approaches over the Norwich City, full views from all directions, details – everything we could possibly want. The Hughes is really a tiny thing; it has room for four people in a pinch if the back seat is in, but it’s really a two place critter and anyway the back seat was not in. That didn’t stop Ric, though; with a quick nod to his days in the Army, sitting in Hueys with his legs dangling out the side, he commandeered the rear bay and hung on while Mark, the cameraman, shot from the front seat. They acquired 22 minutes of fabulous aerial footage which is already dubbed onto our 8 mm digital video tape, including tape of a whale shark from 1200 feet that the pilot estimated at about 20,000 pounds. As Ric said, it was a very surreal experience; there was absolutely no way to get this sort of imagery, the logistics of setting it up would kill it before you got very far. But by purest chance, we were able to grasp the opportunity of a lifetime. Nei Manganibuka was surely looking after us!

The only downside is that the rest of the team is very seriously P.O.ed at Ric for hogging all the fun. John is especially severe on him, and indicates that there will be no sympathy nor mercy. As penance Ric was planning to join the Seven site team and clear brush today.

In general, everything is going fine. No sunburns, no dehydration, Bill’s cold is much better. The steering problem is fixed, or apparently so (they won’t know for sure until it’s stressed); but just in case Nai’a got a large amount of hydraulic steering oil from Janine so as to be able to top off the system if it leaks again.

We can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Yesterday’s work continued setup and logistical arrangements, and began the process of defining the problems.

Everyone went ashore except the Dive Team (who were diving) and Bill, who was getting over his cold. This was not Bill’s choice; Ric and Jim ganged up on him and insisted that he not over-extend himself this early in the expedition. With luck he will be rarin’ to go tomorrow.

The first task was to locate the grave sites. Grave three was fairly easy to find, and after examining it and doing a small-scale preliminary excavation it’s quite certain that it is a grave. There are signs of a ring of small coral rocks arranged around it – definitely human intervention. There may be another grave nearby, and the remains of a Gilbertese house; if so, the possibility is raised that this was part of the village, with family members interred on the property as is the custom.

However, Grave 3 has a different orientation than the other possible grave. It is oriented North/South, and traditional graves are always oriented East/West – which the other one is. So the possibility still remains that it is, in fact, an “outsider’s” burial. Excavation will commence tomorrow.

After lots of bushwacking Grave 4 was located, some distance from the location indicated by the coordinates shot in in 1999. GPS is indeed a wonderful thing! No more hacking around in the bush, shouting back and forth, lost most of the time.

Chris Kennedy found the site, and although he was clearly audible, most of the team could not get to him directly, the scaevola was so thick; they had to go out to the beach and follow the trail he had cut in. The consensus was that this site is not a grave, but is simply a coral slab tipped up when a ren tree fell over. No more time will be spent at this site.

After lunch Ric, Tom, John, and Jim took a boat down to the Seven site, and used GPS and the satellite photograph to locate it. They found it without any trouble even though the scaevola was very heavy: they cut across from the lagoon and intercepted the top of the short “arm” of the seven, then backtracked and found the artifact site. No trace of the clearning done in 1996 remained save some tattered remnants of surveyors’ tape, still faintly orange.

Something John noticed which no one else ever had was a couple of places where there were piles of clam shells. They didn’t walk there, and they didn’t grow there, so someone brought them there to eat. This leads to the inference of residence – if you’re simply grabbing a quick snack, you don’t roam back into the bush but stay down by the lagoon shore where you harvest the clams.

The Seven Site did produce the first casualty of the expedition. John was cutting his way in when he started hollering and cussing. He’d disturbed a bee’s nest, and they were not happy with his presence. He was stung right on the tip of his nose. Everyone else scattered and was unstung.

Tom was very impressed with the degree of scaevola at the Seven Site. It is far thicker and more difficult to work through than he had anticipated, and that means walking a tightrope. You never want to disturb an archeological site before you set it up and search it... but you can’t set up and search this site without clearing scaevola (think multiflora rose and honeysuckle and kudzu and everything else grown up lush and thick and tough) so you can see what you’re doing... and clearing is a destructive process. Tom did, though, get a look at the hole from a distance of about five meters (so as not to walk about on anything delicate). He feels it’s about the right size and shape to have had a skull dug out of it. Operations will commence at the Seven Site tomorrow. The Seven Site artifacts are in the NW corner of ER29. See The Seven Site Project Bulletin for more information about this site; see also Gallagher’s Clues Part 2 for the full analysis.

The Dive team got a lot done. They found the diving to be not difficult at all except for the canyons, where there is a lot of surge back and forth. They were able to search the reef face along WB7 and 8, including the canyons, and found nothing. They had marked the site of the rust-colored pixels with a buoy, guiding to it with GPS and the satellite photo. When they arrived at the spot, Andrew yelled MARK and Walt looked down and said, “Yup, this is the place, there it is.” “It” was a big blodge of red algae, unfortunately; from the surface (approximately 30 foot depth) it did indeed look like rust colored metal, but was not. No one was surprised; it has always seemed completely incredible to us that something metallic could survive and be visible from 300 miles up in that environment.

Some of the canyons are as much as 20 feet deep and 50 feet long. They are also pretty murky, because the surging tends to stir up the silt and sand. Walt was swimming up a particularly long one when, in the murk, he came face to face with a large black tip reef shark. It’s hard to know who was scared more; both of them turned and swam hard in the opposite direction! The dive team isn’t having any problems with sharks; they are seeing gray whalers, leopards, and blacktips, but so far nothing to give them any pause.

Tomorrow’s plan:

The Grave team will begin the excavation of Grave Three.

The Seven Site team will begin the awesome process of clearing the area so archeological work can be done — veeerrrrryyyy carefully, to avoid messing up the site.

The Dive team will continue to dive along the reef north of the Norwich City, and (as time allows) the ledge.

The first day at Nikumaroro went very well. This team is so efficient and just plain competent, things simply fall into place. The planned chores were all done by noon: the Gallagher Highway (WH20) was cleared, a waypoint set on the lagoon shore for a boat landing, the bones experiment begun. Some time was also spent clearing and cleaning the area around Gallagher’s tomb in preparation for the plaque ceremony later in the expedition.

The weather was overcast, a great blessing, because it cuts at least ten degrees off the heat. Today’s forecast was for mostly to partly cloudy, and again, any cloud at all is a Good Thing.

During the three hours after lunch, and before high tide when the boats could be moved into the lagoon, an orientation was held for the new people in the old village. Ric, Van, John and Jim walked around from the landing to the narrowest part of Taziman Passage (WH14), marked by a tree known as “shark tree” – it’s a coco which has grown out almost parallel to the ground over the passage, and fish and sharks congregate there in the shade. It was obvious that yet another violent storm has pounded the island since 1999; there is no sand left on the beach at all, just black beach rock and dead scaevola.

The boats were moved into the lagoon at about three o’clock, and a boat base was established on the lagoon shore. The first boat load went back to Nai’a at 4:30, and all were aboard by 5:30.

One major change: the captain of Nai’a, Fritz Faulkner, has found a place to anchor the ship. It is off the northwest tip (WB3), on a ledge about 60 feet down, and we are very pleased about it, because it will mean a tremendous savings in fuel. Ordinarily, the ship must maintain power all day, steaming up and down off the passage, and then steam out to sea at night, heaving to but maintaining power to the engine in case of problems while drifting on the current... then power up fully and steaming back to the island in the pre-dawn hours. Since we pay for every drop of fuel, the gang is happy to make the longer lighter trip around to the anchorage.

The study on decomposition and bone appearance was begun yesterday by the placement of a shoulder of lamb approximately 130 meters south of the landing, just back into the tree line (WH22). The area was flagged and tagged with a statement explaining the experiment, since we are planning to leave it in place when the expedition departs. Information is being collected at least twice a day, more often when possible. Kar has already collected two different species of flies, and the young coconut crabs are swarming and delighted.

The reason for this experiment is to collect hard data on the rates of organic decomposition in this particular environment, and to find out whether, and how much and widely, coconut crabs will scatter bones, replacing speculation with facts. The exact placement was done in accordance with the description by Gallagher of where the human remains were found – “under a Ren tree...” and “... about 100 feet above ordinary high water springs...” (see Gallagher’s Clues for full text and details). The “ren” tree is Tournefortia argentia, and it grows primarily along the shore line; it thrives on bright light and is very salt tolerant. We have no way of knowing if Gallagher was refering to the ocean or to the lagoon shore, but the ocean shore is far more convenient to the team in terms of collecting data, so that’s where the lamb was placed.

Tomorrow’s activities will see the teams beginning to divide into their separate paths. The dive team will do an orientation dive on the Norwich City area to familiarize themselves with the sorts of stuff associated directly with the ship. Everyone else will pitch in to locate the graves. Grave #3 should be easy enough, as it is on the beach; but #4 is way back in the bush and will require some searching to relocate and nail down with a waypoint. Once the search phase is over, most will remain to begin clearing, while Ric, Tom, John, and Jim will take a boat down to the Seven Site to locate and waypoint it, and to decide on a place for the overnight camp.

In preparation for work at the Seven Site, Kar held a series of demonstrations last night in her cabin (because it could be darkened) with the UV light and goggles, showing everyone how teeth and bones fluoresce under the UV light in comparison to coral, rocks, shells, and other ground debris from the island.

Spirits are high, health is good, and the work proceeds apace; so far, couldn’t be better.

Expeditions Archives

The Earhart Project is funded by charitable contributions. Donations by check (payable to TIGHAR) or credit card (Visa or Master Card) may be sent to TIGHAR, The Earhart Project, 2366 Hickory Hill Road, Oxford, PA 19363, or click on the link below to make your contribution. Confidential inquiries regarding sponsorship opportunities for individuals or corporations should be addressed to Executive Director Richard Gillespie (email Ric@tighar.org).

About TIGHAR Join TIGHAR TIGHAR Projects TIGHAR Publications Contract Services


Copyright 2021 by TIGHAR, a non-profit foundation. No portion of the TIGHAR Website may be reproduced by xerographic, photographic, digital or any other means for any purpose. No portion of the TIGHAR Website may be stored in a retrieval system, copied, transmitted or transferred in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical, digital, photographic, magnetic or otherwise, for any purpose without the express, written permission of TIGHAR. All rights reserved.

Contact us at: info@tighar.org  •   Phone: 610.467.1937   •   JOIN NOW