The plan for Niku VIII is built on the hard data gathered and the hard lessons learned during Niku VI and Niku VII.

Dates: Twenty-four day expedition, June 2015. Nai'a
Vessel: M/S Nai’a, 120 foot research motor sailer out of Fiji.
Search Technology: Small ROV for deep underwater search; SCUBA for shallow underwater search; metal detection and Mark I human eyeball for on-shore search.
Underwater Search Operations: Focus on known sonar targets.
Onshore Search Operations: Detailed survey of the beachfront and forest area in search of evidence of an initial Earhart/Noonan campsite.
Budget: $500,000.
Gary Quigg
Gary Quigg

The Land Team is made up of:

  • Gary Quigg – Land Team leader
  • Lonnie Schorer
  • Rodney McDonald
  • Andrew Sanger

I expect that I will often accompany the Land Team.

John Clauss will be with the Land Team if Ron Bernier doesn’t need his help with the ROV.

Cameraman Mark Smith will be with the Land Team some of the time, shooting video and flying one of the drones to get aerial footage of the area we’ll be searching. Laurie Rubin, our still photographer, will also be with the Land Team some of the time.

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The Land Team’s objective is to conduct a thorough search of areas on northern Nutiran which might logically contain some trace of a campsite established by Earhart and/or Noonan on the island to shelter from the sun and rest during the day. (Note:  The northwestern end of Nikumaroro was named Nutiran – pronounced “newZEEran” – after the New Zealand survey party that camped there Dec. 1938 to February 1939.)

The existence of an Earhart campsite, dubbed “Camp Zero,” is purely theoretical.   Unlike the Seven Site where we know a castaway’s partial skeleton and telltale artifacts were found in 1940, Camp Zero has zero historical support beyond the logic that some kind of onshore campsite should have been desirable or even necessary. Temperatures aboard the airplane out on the reef during the day would be unbearable and nearly all of the credible post-loss radio signals were sent at night.

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Logically, the campsite (if there was one) should have been in an area closest to the plane that provided good shade and was reasonably accessible. Useful objects from the plane may have been brought ashore and left behind when Earhart and/or Noonan moved on after the plane was lost to the sea. Fortunately, this part of the atoll was never cleared and planted so, to an even greater degree than the Seven Site, there is a good chance that objects might survive undisturbed.

Comparing the 1938 aerial photos to current satellite imagery, the vegetation on northern Nutiran hasn’t changed much. From the beach there is an area of coral rubble and scattered scrub that extends inland for about 100 meters before the start of a large Buka (Pisonia grandis) forest. A campsite in the coral rubble and scrub doesn’t make any sense. The coral rubble reflects and magnifies heat and the scrub vegetation provides poor shade. The Buka forest, by contrast, is open, shady, and almost cathedral-like. We’ll focus our search on the edge of the Buka forest accepting that the border between scrub and Buka has probably shifted some over the years. Gary is working up the search plan.

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We also have a few specific points to check out where our forensic imaging specialist, Jeff Glickman, has spotted shapes in the 1938 aerials that may be man-made objects. We have lat/long for those points and will navigate to them with GPS.

Getting There is Half the Fun

Getting to the search area each day will involve:

  1. Transiting from ship to shore in one of the Nai’a skiffs via the landing channel. If the tide is high and the sea calm we can drive right up to the beach and step out of the skiff without even getting our feet wet – but those times are rare. More typically we’ll need to step from the bobbing skiff onto the awash, slippery reef and make our way to the beach carrying our gear without falling on our behinds.
  2. After changing to dry footgear we’ll hike three-quarters of a mile along the shoreline and around the bend to where we’ll have a small skiff set up to ferry ourselves across the main lagoon passage to Nutiran. Exactly how the ferry is going to work is still being discussed.
  3. Once we’re across the passage it’s another three-quarter mile hike up the beach to where the search area starts.
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We’ll be traveling light. We’re doing reconnaissance, not excavation. Our principal search tool will be the Mark One Eyeball. No shovels, rakes, screens, loppers, chain saws, or lunch coolers. (Okay Gary, maybe a rake.) We’ll have flagging tape, a compass, a measuring tape on a reel, and a couple of metal detectors.

At the end of the work day we’ll reverse the process and return to Nai’a for a cold beer (if you choose), and a hot – or if you prefer, cool – shower. We’ll each write up our Field Notes for the day, enjoy a good meal, and discuss the day’s events in a team meeting.
What We’re Looking For

What might Earhart and Noonan have brought ashore from the plane that might still be there? We don’t know what they had on the plane, what they might have considered useful, or what they might have been able to drag or carry across the reef given their physical condition. The point is, as in any search, don’t look for what you think might be/should be there. Pay close attention to what IS there. On that part of the island ANYTHING that looks unnatural is of interest. People probably passed through there from time to time when the island was inhabited but, as far as we know, nobody ever lived there and it should be too far inland for ocean wash-up even in storms. Something as innocuous as a piece of charcoal is a huge red flag.

You’ll hear this a hundred times from Gary and from me. If you do see something DON’T MOVE IT. Get Gary to come and look at it. It’s extremely hard for most people to follow this rule. Your natural reaction will be to pick it up and look at it, but the way it’s lying on the ground, the way it’s oriented, may be important. The old saying is, “The archaeologist has the first opportunity to screw up the site.”
What to Bring

For this kind of work there are two priorities – feet and water. If you don’t take care of your feet you’ll soon be hors de combat (out of action). If you don’t stay hydrated you’ll be in bigger trouble.

Footgear is highly individual. Wear shoes or boots you can hike in all day in rough terrain without getting blisters. I wear New Balance Dunham Cloud hiking boots. Whatever you choose it’s a good idea to bring two pair. Despite your best efforts, your boots could get wet and not dry overnight.

You’ll want something to wear in the skiff and for transiting to the shore at the landing channel – some kind of footgear that can get wet and provides protection for your feet on the coral. I use neoprene dive booties with a thick sole. I carry my hiking shoes and socks, and a towel, in a rubber “dry bag.” Once I’m ashore, I dry off my feet, change into my hiking boots, and leave the booties at the landing for the return trip. In this case, depending on how we set up the Tatiman Passage ferry, you might want to stay in the wet footgear until we get across the passage.

You’ll need to carry at least 2 liters of water on your person. How you do it is up to you. I prefer a CamelBak bladder. I’ll be wearing a 3 liter model. Some lucky devil will also get to carry a three and a half gallon jug of supplemental water on a pack frame.

You’ll also need to carry your lunch, whatever form that may take. The Nai’a galley will make you a sandwich and there will be an assortment of fruit and salty-crunchy stuff. You might want to bring along a supply of your favorite trail mix or power bars, etc.

Other incidentals: camera, sunblock, gloves, compass, small first aid kit.

A couple of people will carry metal detectors. These will be Surfmaster PI Dual Field metal detectors provided to TIGHAR by White’s Electronics of Sweet Home, Oregon. White’s has been sponsoring TIGHAR’s work for over twenty years and many of our most significant discoveries have been made with White’s products. You’ll find them easy to use, rugged, reliable, and extremely sensitive. The new Surfmaster – waterproof down to 100 feet – will also be used by the Dive Team. So don’t worry if yours gets rained on.
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Gary and at least one other person will have a radio for communication with the ship.

Looking at the current satellite imagery I don’t think we’ll need to hack our way through any dense scaevola – for which we can be thankful – so carry a bush knife or machete only if you have a good one and know how to use it. Niku is a bad place to have an edged-weapon mishap. He who lives by the sword….

If all this is starting to remind you of a military patrol you get the idea. We’re putting boots on the ground with the ability to “shoot, move and communicate.” Our objective is to accomplish the mission – i.e. conduct a thorough, well-documented search – and bring everyone home in one piece. Nikumaroro is not a dangerous place if you respect it for what it is and come prepared to deal with the island on its own terms. We should have plenty of time to cover the area we want to examine so there’s no need to hurry or take chances if conditions are unfavorable. If we need to wait for the tidal flow to slacken before we cross the passage, we’ll wait. If you feel like you need to take a rest, let Gary know and take a rest. We’ve done ten expeditions to Nikumaroro without a serious injury because we’ve followed the principle that it’s not worth hurting live people to look for dead ones.

One last reminder: as the old saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” We’ll need to stay flexible.

Special Offer – The Niku VIII Search Reference Kit

The Niku VIII Search Reference Kit offers maps and photos in both print and digital format, including a NEW Grid Map based on the new GeoEye Foundation satellite photo. Click HERE to learn more.

Our special thanks to the corporate and individual sponsors of The Earhart Project, without whom nothing would be possible:

Photek Imaging
Digital Globe
Thursby Software
Sutton Inspection Bureau




Whites Electronics

The Members of the TIGHAR Board of Directors.

And the loyal membership of TIGHAR.

To make a donation to the Earhart Project, click HERE.

The Earhart Project is funded by charitable contributions. Donations by check (payable to TIGHAR) or credit card (Visa, Discover, American Express or Master Card) may be sent to TIGHAR, The Earhart Project, 2366 Hickory Hill Road, Oxford, PA 19363, USA, or click on the link above 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).

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