Expedition
Updates

Reports are in reverse date order so that those who check every day don’t have to scroll down endlessly as the expedition progresses. If you are new to this page, just click on the earliest date (down at the bottom of the list below Week 1) and then scroll up to read each posting in order.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
 

Click here for a description of the Niku Vp Expedition.

Click HERE to read the Bulletin which tells why we’re doing this.

Home is the Sailor

Wednesday, August 6, 2003, 1305 EDT; just off American Samoa.

As of today’s call, Mollie was 60 miles out and expecting to make Pago Pago at about 15:00 local time today (22:00 EDT). The ocean has been very calm for the past two days and yesterday they actually hove to and went for a swim while Capt. Ken checked the engine oil.

Tomorrow they’ll arrange to ship the expedition gear home and late tomorrow night they’ll begin the long flight home. This will be the last expedition update. We’ll put a full report up on the TIGHAR website when the team has been debriefed and we have the photos they have taken.

 

 

Sunset reflected over the lagoon at Nikumaroro.

Photo by John Clauss. Used by permission.

Pago Tomorrow
Tuesday, August 5, 2003, 1310 EDT; 11°02.98′S by 171°52.69′W.

At last report Mollie was 200 miles from Pago Pago and expecting to make port midday tomorrow (Wednesday). The wind had turned around and they are motoring rather than sailing but still making 6.7 knots.

Once they’re in American Samoa they’ll ship the bulky expedition gear home courtesy of TIGHAR’s sponsor FedEx. On Thursday night Van, Walt and John will begin the long flight back to the mainland U.S. Howard will take the short commuter flight to Apia, Western Samoa and from there fly home to New Zealand.

Today Van gave us a whole bunch of GPS coordinates from which we’ll try to reconstruct their overwash transects on the satellite photo. John says he counted 40 coral blocks on the reef flat opposite the mouth of Tatiman Passage. We count about 18 in the 2001 satellite photo.

This photo shows one of the coral blocks we’re talking about. The red and white stick is two meters long – over six feet. The storm waves are so fierce that they break off huge chunks of the reef and throw them up onto the reef-flat. No problem for them to clean off a few airplane parts.

 

TIGHAR photo by Ric Gillespie.

Fair Wind Home
Monday, August 4, 2003, 1330 EDT; 8°29.55′S by 172°55.7′W.

The weather is great and Mollie continues to make excellent speed under sail on her way back to Pago Pago. The revised ETA has her making port on the morning of Wednesday the 6th.

Howard is taking the bridge watch in the early hours of the morning to give Ken and Louise a breather. He and Van (who is an early riser) watch the sun come up over the Pacific each morning. We suspect them of enjoying themselves.

The guys have been holding informal meetings to try to organize their photographs, most of which are digital, to make sure everyone has everything. A CD will be cut and sent to us here in Wilmington and we’ll mount some of the photos here on the website as soon as we can.

We’re all looking forward to the process of digesting what we learned from this expedition and starting the planning for Niku V next summer.

Heading Home
Sunday, August 3, 2003, 1305 EDT; 5°53.96′S by 174°2.23′W.

Yesterday (Saturday) during some final metal detector work in the vicinity of the wrecked radio shack, the team discovered and recovered three more aluminum artifacts. These are small pieces that bear some resemblance to, and may be associated with, Artifact 2-7-V-2. We’ll know more once we've had a good look at them.

Howard estimates that the devastation seen on shore was caused by three-meter waves on top of a one-meter storm surge striking the shoreline from the west. It is probably possible to calculate how big the ocean waves must have been for that kind of power to reach the shore after traveling over the entire width of the reef-flat. Whatever the answer, it is painfully apparent why the Wheel of Fortune is no longer where it was in June of 2002 and the next question, of course, is: Where did it go? With a good idea of where it was and a decent estimate of its size, shape, and probable mass, and some handle on the strength and direction of the force that moved it, we should be able to come up with a reasonable guess as to where next year’s Niku V expedition should search for it.

Mollie departed Nikumaroro at sundown last evening and is now heeled over about 30 degrees under full sail and making a very respectable 7.5 knots enroute back to Pago Pago. They plan to arrive there mid-morning on Thursday.

Penultimate Day
Saturday, August 2, 2003, 1310 EDT; Nikumaroro.

On Friday Van and Walt did an underwater search along the reef edge from the landing channel at WG21 to the southwest point at WI26. The maximum depth of their search was 60 feet and the greatest distance out from the reef edge was 100 yards. At that point the reef slope becomes nearly vertical. No man-made items were seen but there was abundant sea life (sharks, sea turtles, etc.).

John and Howard surveyed the southeast end of the atoll. The bad news is that the Seven Site is completely overgrown with neck-high or higher scaevola. The good news is that both John and Howard are short. Only the Skull Hole is clear, but that’s because we dug away the scaevola root system. The tarps we spread out to discourage vegetation growth survive as occasional scraps of plastic.

... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works ye mighty, and despair...

The large “lake” at the southeast tip (ET35) is full of water and fish. The area around there shows signs of having been overwashed both from the ocean inward and from the lagoon outward.

Bauareke Passage (WV25) is now open to the sea even at low tide and the lagoon water is now clear rather than milky.

Some preliminary research into the weather out there over the past year has revealed what we strongly suspect to be the cause of the dramatic changes to the island (see Pacific Storms).

You’ll recall that in early March of 1997 Tropical Cyclone Gavin formed just north of Fiji while we were at Nikumaroro, one thousand miles away (see Hell and High Water). It was a Category 2 storm (max sustained wind of 100 mph). The effect it had on Niku was awesome.

Tropical Cyclone Zoe, in late December 2002, was a Category 5 storm (max sustained wind of 155 mph) and was twice as close. It was also reinforced by the virtually simultaneous Tropical Cyclone Waka, a Category 2 storm that was even closer (click on the map at right for a bigger version in a new screen).

We feel certain that what our guys are seeing on Nikumaroro is the result of the combined effect of Zoe and Waka. It may be the most violent thing that has happened to that place in hundreds of years.

Today Van, Walt and John will go back into the village and give the Last Day Charm a chance to work. They’ll also move all the gear back aboard Mollie. Howard and Ken will do some diving. This evening they’ll set sail for Pago Pago.

Artifacts
Friday, August 1, 2003, 1255 EDT; Nikumaroro.

Two aluminum artifacts have been recovered. They are designated 2-7-V-1 and 2-7-V-2. Both were onshore within the storm damaged area in WI15.

2-7-V-1 is a strip of thin (.032 or less) aluminum sheet approx. 18 inches long and about 3 inches wide at one end and 2 inches wide at the other end. About 3/4 of an inch along one long edge has been folded over twice. There is a row of very small rivet holes or possibly nail holes running the length of the strip and one flat-head rivet remaining at the 3″ end. The aluminum is fairly corrosion free but, like several of our other aluminum artifacts, does show signs of once having been submerged for a considerable period. There is no sign of paint or zinc chromate. It was laying on the surface of the ground not far from the remains of the radio shack. It is the consensus of the team that it was probably washed in by the recent storm.

2-2-V-2 was originally a strip of aluminum sheet roughly 6 inches wide by 2 feet long. It was found buried in the ground with about 5 inches of the length exposed. It is very corroded and has separated into several pieces. It is the consensus of the team that it had been there for a very long time. There is a line of rivet holes and there are remnants of some rivets. There is no sign of paint or zinc chromate. In approximately the middle of the piece there is a drilled hole through which a loop of copper wire has been inserted as if the piece had once been hung up.

Verbal descriptions of artifacts are always tricky and we’ll know a lot more once we’ve had a look at the actual objects. Both seem to be quite stable, and at this time we plan to subject them to detailed inspection and comparison to other artifacts we have recovered. Photographs and analysis will be published on the website in a Bulletin and in TIGHAR Tracks.

Yesterday (Thursday) Van and Walt snorkeled the shoreline all along the southern edge of the main passage and found nothing but a few pieces of Norwich City debris. They then joined John and Howard who were doing a reconnaissance of the overwash area from WF18 to WG20 by starting at the treeline and cutting transects inland every 100 meters. Scaevola growth was heavy in the southern end of the area but less so as they moved northward. There was lots of flotsam and storm damage well back into the vegetation. No aircraft-related artifacts were found but Howard came across what appears top have been a bronze or copper fitting for the end of a one and one half inch diameter rubber hose with threads on one end. Cast into the metal are the words “W.D. Adams Manufacturing Company, Chicago, USA, 1½″.”

It’s worth finding out what we can about the company to see if it helps us tell where this object may have come from.

Yesterday Howard also finished up his reef measurements in the Norwich City area.

The weather has cleared up and today (Friday) John and Howard will go down to the southeast end to assess storm damage down there and see what the Seven Site looks like. They’ll also take a look at Bauareke Passage to see if there have been any changes there. Meanwhile, Van and Walt will continue their underwater inspection of the reef edge where they left off in 2001 at the blasted landing channel. They’ll continue southward from there.

Tomorrow (Saturday) will be more diving for Van and Walt while John and Howard finish up on the island. Once they’re all back aboard tomorrow evening they’ll start the trip home.

Lost & Found
Thursday, July 31, 2003, 1305 EDT; Nikumaroro.

The weather cleared up yesterday afternoon and the search for the WoF resumed but without success. The entire coastline along the southern shore of the main passage has now been searched – some sections at least four times – and the beach areas where there is any sand left have been searched with metal detectors. Today Van and Walt will do an underwater search of the passage close to the lagoon where the bottom falls away steeply close to shore, but there is little expectation that the wheel is there.

It must be emphasized that this coastline of the island has been devastated by a weather event more violent than anything that has happened there in at least the last fifty years. The reef and beach along most of the shore have been scoured clean of sand well up into the treeline and the vegetation for the first several meters inside the treeline has been ripped up and washed inland to lie piled against the bases of big trees. The island's radio shack, a substantial and sound structure when we were last there in 2001, has been knocked flat. There is also lots of damage to the lagoon shore in the Club Fred area (WI18 & 19). At this point it would appear that whatever Greg Stone saw in June 2002 was torn loose and washed – somewhere.

We’ll want to look at the weather for the past year and see if we can find the storm that was the culprit. Samoa got clobbered earlier this year. It may have been the same system. Seems like there should be archived satellite weather photos of the Pacific that would tell the story.

Today’s satphone connection was excellent and we were able to get good descriptions of the two artifacts recovered yesterday. Both seem to be aircraft-related and both have obviously been “worked” by the locals. Neither seems to have zinc chromate paint that would automatically disqualify it as an Electra part but probably neither is complex enough to have smoking gun potential. We’ll know more when we’ve had a chance to really examine them. We’ll write up detailed descriptions soon, and post photos on the website as soon as possible (check for a new Bulletin, that’s where it will be).

Today it’s raining again but it looks like it might clear. They’ll run some transects into the overwash area and finish the reef measurements by the Norwich City. Tomorrow (Fri.) they’ll check out the Seven Site and that end of the island. At the end of the work day on Saturday they’ll start the trip home.

There’re a Lot of Places on the Island
Wednesday, July 30, 2003, 1310 EDT; Nikumaroro.

Ric has talked by email and phone with Greg Stone and it seems we’re still in the game. Here is the email exchange:


Hi Greg,

I know you're in Bermuda until August but I hope you can get email.

Our team arrived at Niku yesterday and tried to find the object you described for us. Looking in the area you indicated, all they found was the reinforcing ring from a 55-gallon oil drum.

There are a few things about the barrel ring that fit your description:

  • it is visible from shore
  • it is about 20 feet out
  • it is stuck to the bottom
  • it is covered in marine growth

There are other things that definitely don't fit:

  • You were sure that the wheel rim stood about 15 inches off the bottom. The barrel ring stands about 2 inches off the bottom.
  • You were sure that the diameter of the wheel rim was about 12 inches and that you reached down into the water with both hands to try to pick it up. The barrel rim is easily twice that diameter and you probably wouldn't reach down with both hands to try to pick it up.
  • You said that the wheel rim was not rusty. The barrel ring is, of course, very rusty.

Are you familiar with these rings? They're the heavy rims that go around the top and bottom of metal drums. Typically the thin metal of the drum itself rusts away leaving only a rim. We see lots of them on Niku.

What do you think are the chances that this is what you saw?


Hi Ric, That is definitely not what I saw--I seem to remember vaguely, some old 55 gal rims as you describe, what I saw, as you describe, was well above the sediment and was not rusted, just mildly encrusted. It WAS a wheel rim--whether a plane wheel rim or an automobile or some other wheel rim is the question. Your analysis of the discrepancies is absolutely accurate. From what you say, they have not found what I saw. Have they tried a metal detector? I do not know what to say except, that they should keep looking.


Ric phoned Greg and they talked for quite a while. He is dead certain that what he saw was not a barrel ring. In trying to pin down the location closer he remembered that the National Geo photographer and Rusi (a crew member from Nai’a) were trying to get a good picture of a coconut crab at the base of a palm that grew out over the water. He is sure that he saw the wheel between that tree and the lagoon and it was out of sight of the tree.

There is only one tree that fits that description – Shark Tree – and it is much further along in the passage than he had originally thought. By coincidence, National Geo is going to use that photo of the crab and the tree as the lead photo in an article about Greg’s expedition that they will run next April. Greg has a low-res copy of the photo with him now in a draft of the article he is reviewing. He can’t send me the photo but we sent him the photo we have of Shark Tree (in yesterday’s update) to confirm that we’re talking about the same tree. He will look at it tomorrow morning.

Van checked in yesterday evening about 20:00 EDT, about 14:00 there. (He took the satphone ashore with them.) Ric was able to bring him up to date on all of the above. They’re surveying their way along the shore toward the blasted channel. They’ll now head back up the coast and start searching from Shark Tree toward the lagoon. Maybe tomorrow’s report will bring better news.

Ric also spoke briefly with John Clauss, who has spent more time on Nikumaroro than anyone except Ric. He says the place was hit hard last winter and is very green now, probably indicating higher than normal rainfall. He also thinks the fish and bird populations may be down somewhat but it’s hard to be sure.

When Van made his morning report today we talked at length about where to continue the search for the WoF. The photo at right shows the area we decided should be the new target area. The reasoning goes like this:

  • Greg says there is a distinctive palm that grows at a 45 degree angle out from the treeline. (This is not Shark Tree that grows out at almost a 90 degree angle.) He has a recollection that you can see Norwich City from that spot. After studying the satellite photos Ric thinks the tree marked on the photo is probably the one he's talking about – but that’s just a guess. Van is going to check it out on the ground.
  • Greg left the Nat’l Geo photographer and Rusi trying to get a good photo of a coconut crab at the base of that tree, and he walked along the shore toward the lagoon.
  • Greg saw the wheel after he was out of sight of the 45 degree tree.
  • Greg does not remember Shark Tree which suggests, but does not prove, that he never got that far.
  • The area shown in the New Target Area box would seem to be the most likely place. Note that there’s a cove right there that appears to collect sand. Van knew just where we were talking about and he says that it is sandy in that area now. We discussed the possibility that an object a few feet out into the water in June 2002 could now be on shore and under the sand due to a building outward of the shoreline. Today he and John will search the new area both in the water and on land with metal detectors.

Meanwhile, Howard and Walt will return to Norwich City at low tide later today to finish taking measurements.

They had a pretty good squall go through last night and Mollie dragged her anchor. They pulled it in and drifted most of the night. It’s cloudy today and they may get rained on.

Everyone is in good health. Howard, like most rookies, had to climb the Niku learning curve the first day. He is now being more careful about sunglasses, sunblock and drinking lots of water.

On Site
Tuesday, July 29, 2003, 1305 EDT; Nikumaroro.

Yesterday Nikumaroro was sighted at about 0830; they came up on the north shore and circled the west end to arrive at the landing channel. An attempt was made to set anchor there, but it wouldn’t hold; they moved the boat to Grid Sector 2WA and found an anchorage there.

By 1330 the team was in the boat with their gear. They established a base camp just into the jungle off the channel – a place to change shoes, eat lunch, leave extra gear, and meet at the end of the day. Then they walked along the shore to Grid Sector 15WF and began a systematic search for the WoF. They finished that sector; then Howard and Walt went to log in Gardner 1 while Van and John continued in Grid Sector 15WH. They found only a top ring from a rusted out 55 gallon drum. Howard and John went back to the channel and, using rebar they picked up at Kanton, set up an anchor for the tidal gauge. If the anchor system holds they'll install the gauge tomorrow.

The search pattern used consisted of walking through a given area four times, line abreast. As the report from Greg indicated a clear visual from some ways away, and there was only 1 to 4 cm of sand on the reef in the area, metal detectors were not used.

Today Howard, Walt and Van will continue the search outward from the above grid squares. John will take the small boat around to the Shark Tree and join up with them there; then they’ll all go across the channel to the Norwich City to get the tidal measurements needed for our hindcasting tables. The work done so far uses Hull Island as a basis, and by comparing those tables to the actual tides at Nikumaroro we can fine-tune the accuracy and then reliably hind-cast for tides on July 2, 1937.

We don’t remember, if we ever knew, how this tree got the name “shark tree,” but it’s a unique feature and a good meeting place. TIGHAR photo by John Clauss, 1997.

 

What does this mean? Well, it’s a reference to your grid map. If you don’t have one, order one by clicking here.

Land in Sight Ahead
Monday, July 28, 2003, 1305 EDT; 4°14.5′S by 173°52.1′W

For the first time in this expedition we can say that the gang is ahead of schedule. They cleared out of Customs at Kanton in a record-breaking 20 minutes and immediately set sail for Nikumaroro. When Van called us at dawn their time, they were about 30 miles off Niku and expecting landfall around mid-day.

Last night they had their first “official” team meeting to decide on priorities and work assignments for the first day. Here’s the plan:

#
Job
Bodies
1
Move equipment on shore
4
2
Establish base camp by co-op store
2
3
Install tide gauge in channel
2
4
Find and do a visual inspection of the WoF (New Bulletin!)
2
5
Locate and log into GPS locus “Gardner One” from Niku IIII
2

Of course, this is all dependent on time, weather, and unknown variables. As in war, no plan ever survives contact with Nikumaroro.

Click on the small map to open a readably bigger one in a new window.

Landfall at Kanton
Sunday, July 27, 2003, 1305 EDT; 2°55.6′S by 171°42.6′W

When Van calls us it’s just coming up dawn on the boat. Today’s news is a visual make of Kanton Island as the light improves. They are ten miles off shore, waiting for enough light to get into the lagoon and dock. The plan is to clear Customs and leave as soon as they can; if there is any significant delay, however, they may loiter off Kanton to avoid arriving at Nikumaroro in the dark (never a good idea). It’s just on 200 miles to Niku. All is well, all are well, and the trip has been fine so far.

Click on the small map to open a readably bigger one in a new window.


Kanton Island – Background

Kanton (formerly spelled Canton; now known also as Abariringa) Island is the only inhabited atoll of the Phoenix Group. By far the largest island in the region, Kanton had a rich history in the mid-20th century (1938 to 1965) as a refueling stop for both civilian and military trans-Pacific air traffic. During World War II the island was a major American logistical waypoint and, in the 1960s, was an important telemetry and communications station for the U.S. space program. In the early 1970s the island was headquarters for a USAF program that used the Phoenix Group as a target area for ICBM tests. Abandoned by the U.S. in 1976 the atoll today looks like the set for film about the aftermath of Armageddon. A handful of families eke out a living from the sea with the help of provisions delivered periodically by a Kiribati government ship.

In this photo of Kanton you can clearly see the still-serviceable 8,000 foot runway in the northwest corner of the atoll and the dredged passage into the lagoon along the southwest side. The village and wharf are along the lagoon shore to the left after you go through passage. For a sense of scale, the lagoon is four and a half miles across at its widest point. (Thanks to Peter McQuarrie and QSL.net for this image.)

This is John’s second visit to Kanton. He was on the TIGHAR team that flew a chartered Gulfstream I propjet to the atoll in 1998 to investigate the possibility that an engine from the Earhart aircraft had been recovered by helicopter from one of the other islands and brought to Kanton during the missile tests in 1971. For a full description of that expedition see The Kanton Mission, Ate Another MRE, and other articles in TIGHAR Tracks Volume 14 Number 1.

This map of Kanton is drawn from the sailing chart. Click on the small image to open a full-sized map in a new window. For other maps of Kanton, click HERE.

A Day and a Wakeup
Saturday, July 26, 2003, 1250 EDT; 5°36.1′S by 171°47.6′W

Howard’s birthday was yesterday so all aboard had a small party for our Kiwi. Otherwise, not much has been happening – shipboard life is a bit constrained. They are making nearly 8 knots but Ken is planning to reef the sails and slow down as they approach Kanton; there’s no point in reaching there in the middle of the night, as they won’t be able to get through the channel into the lagoon safely until sunup.

Click on the small map to open a readably bigger one in a new window.

Midpoint
Friday, July 25, 2003, 1300 EDT; 8°12.03′S by 171°46.46′W

Forty-four hours more to Kanton Island. The first 12 hours out of Pago Mollie spent under sail; then the wind shifted to due north. Being unwilling to turn around and go back, sails were hauled in and they proceeded under motor power for 36 hours. But with a change in latitude came a freshening wind and they are now under sail in front of 18 knots of breeze, making 7.3 knots in a calm sea. They’ve all tossed their Scopolamine patches away and are feeling fine.

ETA Kanton is 01:30 Sunday their time; from Kanton it is 210NM to Nikumaroro, which they would expect to reach midmorning (again, their time; evening, EDT). At sundown yesterday they sighted Nikunono but saw no signs of life.

Ken and Louise’s 7 year old daughter Mollie has taken the guys under her wing. Van brought her a present of dolls, and she has been trying to get our fellows to play with her. So far no success, but they are taking turns reading a Harry Potter book to her.

Click on the small map to open a readably bigger one in a new window.

Rockin’ and Rollin’
Thursday, July 24, 2003, 0700 EDT; 11°19.7′S by 171°48.06′W

The winds are set fair and, with the aid of Scopolamine patches, Van tells us it’s a pleasure to be aboard Mollie and finally moving. They cleared port in Pago at about 3:30 Tuesday and have made good time so far. At an average speed of around 6 knots they are estimating arrival at Kanton Island on Sunday afternoon.

We’ll be marking their progress daily using a chart we’ve prepared for this purpose. Just click on the small image to open a readably bigger one in a new window.

Underway At Last
Wednesday, July 23, 2003; Pago Pago, American Samoa

Through the courtesy and cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kiribati, TIGHAR’s Niku Vp expedition has been cleared to depart Pago Pago for the Phoenix Islands without being accompanied by a government representative. This special exception to official policy was extended to TIGHAR rather than further delay the expedition’s departure. Mollie will now proceed directly to Kanton Island where the expedition party will clear Kiribati Customs and Immigration formalities before continuing on to Nikumaroro.

All of these diplomatic negotiations were handled in a rather intense few hours yesterday afternoon (early morning in Hawaii, Samoa, and Tarawa). I soon as I had the clearance from Foreign Affairs I phoned Van aboard Mollie and released the expedition for departure. They were going to put to sea as soon as they cleared U.S. Customs and Port Security. Van will check in by satphone later today with a progress report.

The detour via Kanton will add an estimated day and a half to the sailing time from Pago Pago. We now expect Mollie to arrive off Nikumaroro on or about Monday, July 28.

Now that the expedition is at last underway, my full attention will need to be focused on support and coordination. Starting tomorrow, Pat Thrasher will be writing the daily updates just as she did during NIKU IIII in 2001.

–Ric Gillespie

Left Behind
Tuesday, July 22, 2003; Pago Pago, American Samoa

Van, Walt and John have arrived in Pago Pago, American Samoa and are now with Howard aboard Mollie. However, at the last moment Aobure Teatata, the representative of the government of Kiribati who must accompany the expedition, was denied boarding on the flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago because he did not have the documents necessary to enter American Samoa. At this point we’re not yet sure how or why this problem came about but we're hoping that we can get it straightened out quickly and get him to Samoa in the next few days so that the delay doesn’t cut into the seven days the team needs on Nikumaroro to accomplish the various aspects of their mission.

Needless to say, this is a very frustrating development. As soon as we can get Mr. Teatata to Samoa the expedition will depart for Nikumaroro.

The Game’s Afoot
Monday, July 21, 2003; afternoon, EDT.

In theory, Kiribati Wildlife Officer Aobure Teatata traveled from Kiritimati (Christmas Island) to Honolulu yesterday and will, later today, meet up with TIGHAR team leader Van Hunn and expedition members Walt Holm and John Clauss who are – in theory – now enroute from California to Hawaii. Tonight they’ll all fly from Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa where – in theory – they’ll join expedition member Howard Alldred who is already aboard Mollie which is – in theory – standing by in Pago Pago and ready to depart for Nikumaroro.

At this point, no news is good news. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “The game’s afoot.”And, if all goes well, the next hard news we expect to have will be via a satellite phone call from Van aboard Mollie sometime around midday Tuesday (EDT).

Two Back, One Forward
Thursday, July 17, 2003, Wilmington, Delaware.

Space has opened up on flights that were previously full so that we’re now able to get the expedition team to Pago Pago, American Samoa on Monday July 21 rather than have to wait until Thursday July 24. Mollie will need to re-relocate from Apia, Western Samoa back to Pago Pago but the expedition should now be able to begin the voyage to Nikumaroro late on Monday or early Tuesday. The new ETA for Niku, asteroids notwithstanding, is on or about Friday, July 25.

Another Delay
Wednesday, July 16, 2003, Wilmington, Delaware.

The communications and travel difficulties that still plague remote Pacific island nations have forced us to postpone departure of the Niku VP expedition until July 24. Because the representative of the Republic of Kiribati who must accompany the expedition did not get the word about the schedule change, he did not make the once-a-week flight from Kiritimati (Christmas Island) to Honolulu on Sunday. We now have no choice but to move all of the travel ahead one week and deal with the cost and scheduling problems such a shift always entails.

Putting these expeditions together is always a challenge, but this trip has had to overcome more than its share of obstacles. In November 2002 we arranged to piggy-back the expedition on a commercial tourist dive trip to the Phoenix Islands organized by Nai’a Cruises in Fiji. Nai’a scheduled the expedition for departure in June 2003, but by mid-January Nai’a thought they’d have to cancel the trip because not enough customers were signing up. We mobilized the TIGHAR membership and by early March we were able to add four TIGHARs to the passenger list – enough to make the trip a paying proposition for Nai’a. The trip was on – but it was also becoming increasingly obvious that the United States was about to start a war and the non-TIGHAR members of the Nai’a expedition to the Phoenix Islands began to discover that they had schedule conflicts or personal obligations that prevented them from participating. On March 19th Nai’a canceled the expedition. That same day President Bush announced that military operations against Iraq had begun.

Fortunately, we had a Plan B ready to go. The New Zealand-based sailing vessel S/V Mollie would meet our four-person team in Pago Pago, American Samoa and support a one week stay at Nikumaroro. The schedule would slip to early July and the team would change somewhat, but the TIGHAR expedition would go forward.

Mollie sailed from Auckland in late April and started making her way north toward Samoa. May was spent planning the work to be done on the island, assembling gear, and handling the thousand logistical details that are the heart of all field work. In early June a fifth participant was added to the expedition when the government of the Republic of Kiribati specified that a Wildlife Conservation Officer from Kiritimati would accompany the TIGHAR team (a Kiribati representative has always gone with us to Nikumaroro).

By late June all was in readiness when events beyond our control once again intervened to thwart us (see the Expedition Update for July 14, below). After two weeks of uncertainty and hassle we were able to put the expedition back on track only to have the communications/ travel glitch described above force us to, once again, reshuffle the deck.

The new plan calls for Mollie to sail on Thursday, July 24 which should put the team at Nikumaroro on or about the 28th. If a giant asteroid crashes into the middle of the Pacific in the next week or so we may have to amend that schedule.

Adventures in the Pacific
Monday, July 14, 2003, Wilmington, Delaware.

The departure of the Niku VP Expedition was delayed due to an interruption in airline service to the South Pacific. The team was originally scheduled to rendezvous with the expedition vessel S/V Mollie in Pago Pago, American Samoa on July 3rd but in late June, deteriorated runway conditions at Pago Pago forced a suspension of all overseas service. Some quick repairs were made and it was hoped that service would soon resume but an FAA inspection on July 3rd found that further repairs were needed.

Expectations at that time were that the runway at Pago Pago would be closed until September so we made the decision to shift the expedition’s port of embarkation to Apia in neighboring Western Samoa. Over the next week Mollie repositioned to Apia and we rebooked the team's airline travel to that destination at a considerable increase in cost. Then to everyone’s surprise, the runway at Pago Pago reopened and service resumed on July 12th . Backlogs, delays, and cancellation penalties, however, made it impractical to go back our original plan.

The above summary of the events of the past two weeks is, in all honesty, a gross over-simplification. To relate the whole story would be as cruel as it would be pointless. All that really matters is that we’re now (in theory) set to embark the expedition from Apia on July 17th.

As of Monday July 14:

Our New Zealander coral reef geologist, Howard Alldred, is with Mollie in Apia.

The Kiribati Wildlife Conservation Officer designated to accompany the expedition as a representative of the Republic of Kiribati, Aobure Teatata, was scheduled to travel on Sunday to Honolulu from his home island of Kiritimati (Christmas Island) and thence on Monday to Pago Pago where he’ll have to wait until Wednesday evening to catch a commuter flight to Apia.

On Tuesday, July 15th, Van Hunn, Walt Holm, and John Clauss will fly from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand and from there to Apia, arriving early on Thursday morning July 17th. Assuming Mollie sails on the 17th she should arrive off Nikumaroro sometime late on Sunday July 20th or on Monday the 21st.

The green line shows the route of the TIGHAR team – Los Angeles to Auckland to Apia to Nikumaroro. The representative from Kiribati must travel from Kiritmati Island to Honolulu, then to Pago Pago, and take a commuter flight to Apia. (Yellow line)


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