Rough Trip
The Niku VIII expedition has returned. It was a rough trip fraught with high seas and high drama.
high seas
TIGHAR photo by John Clauss. Forbidding and beautiful. The wreck of SS Norwich City rusts on the reef where it went aground in 1929. TIGHAR photo by Walt Holm.

After a five-day, thousand-mile voyage from Fiji, the expedition vessel Nai’a arrived at Nikumaroro on June 13. As planned and promised, Nai’a co-owner Rob Barrel and Capt. Jonathan Smith succeeded in mooring the ship off the west end of the atoll over the anomaly location by using the prevailing winds from the east to hold Nai’a against two lines to the reef  – one to the wreck of SS Norwich City and one to the reef edge north of the Bevington Object location.

In this drone photo Nai’a is positioned over the anomaly location. The lines running to the reef are just visible. Photo courtesy Rob Barrel. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The greatest frustration was the total meltdown of the ROV we were counting on to investigate the anomaly detected in the side-scan sonar imagery from the 2012 expedition. We wanted and intended to have a second ROV aboard as a back-up but due to a last minute cascade of unexpected additional expenses we simply could not afford the cost. Delaying the expedition until more money was raised was not an option. The expedition vessel was booked for a particular time period – June 8 to July 1 – and had other charters booked for the rest of the year. Delaying the expedition would mean canceling the charter, losing everything we had paid, and starting the fundraising all over again. We had no choice but to go with what we had.

The ROV Team, L to R: TIGHAR members Walt Holm and John Clauss, ROV contractor Ron Bernier of Advanced Remote Marine Services, preparing the Seabotix vLBV9500 for an early test dive. TIGHAR photo by Ric Gillespie.

On both the 2010 and 2012 expeditions we had a second back-up ROV but in neither case was the second ROV needed. On this trip the contractor brought extra spare components expecting to be able to handle any problems that should arise, but an unprecedented series of component malfunctions ultimately led to the failure of the vehicle’s main computer motherboard. Nonetheless, the ROV team never gave up trying to contrive some way to investigate the anomaly.

In literally the final hours of the expedition they were successful in deploying a crude but functional camera system – dubbed the “Hail Mary” – that captured 170 high definition images of the bottom in the vicinity of the anomaly. The high-definition photos are of excellent quality. Whether any conclusions can be drawn from the imagery remains to be seen.

Smile for the camera! This Grouper found the Hail Mary rig interesting. Note the dive weight and line used to signal contact with the bottom. The circular shape at top right is interesting but in other photos in the sequence it seems to be just coral.TIGHAR photo by Ron Bernier.





The other two missions of the expedition fared much better.

SCUBA Operations 
Divers ready to go. L to R: diver Bill Rodgers, surface cameraman Mark Smith, Dive Team Leader Jim Linder, underwater photographer Steve Genkins, diver Lee Paynter, diver Andrew McKenna. TIGHAR photo by Laurie Rubin. Andrew McKenna checks the reef for hidden metal with a Whites Electronics Surf-Pro Dual Field metal detector. Whites has provided metal detectors for every TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro since 1989.TIGHAR photo by Steve Genkins.

The dive team tested the hypothesis that airplane debris may have survived on the reef slope at depths between 15 feet and the edge of the first underwater cliff at 130 feet.  A thorough visual and metal detector search turned up no airplane debris but an inspection of shallow water debris from the shipwreck revealed relatively lightweight pieces of copper sheet that had not been swept away by storm activity.  This discovery seems to argue against the theory that the Earhart aircraft was torn apart in the surf (if lightweight sheet metal from the ship survived in shallow water, so should lightweight metal from the plane) and supports the theory that the plane sank in deeper water more or less intact.

During dive operations, underwater photographer Steve Genkins not only documented interesting artifacts and features but also captured many truly spectacular images of Nikumaroro’s marine life. This handsome fellow is a Black Tip Reef Shark. TIGHAR photo by Steve Genkins.
Land Operations

The land team addressed the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan established a campsite ashore during the time the plane was on the reef; that items were brought ashore and subsequently left behind when AE and FN moved on after the plane was gone; and that items left behind are findable. Pre-expedition speculation based on satellite imagery identified the tall, open “Buka” (Pisonia grandis) forest about 100 meters in from the beach as the most likely area for the theoretical Camp Zero. However, on-the-ground inspection found the forest to be damp, oppressive, littered with bird droppings, infested with rats and crabs, and devoid of breeze – not at all a desirable place to camp. Also, from that location Earhart and Noonan would be out of sight of the reef and unable monitor the plane and horizon.

Expedition Leader Ric Gillespie and Land Team Leader Gary Quigg confer in the Buka forest. TIGHAR photo by Lonnie Schorer.

On-site observation and experience caused the land team to conclude that a more likely place would be under the one of the “Ren” trees (Tournefortia argentia) that dot the shoreline near the beach. However, it was also apparent that the entire shoreline is subject to periodic overwash. Giant waves generated by far-way storms come ashore over the reef and push beachfront coral into tall berms, scattering and burying anything in their path. Damage from a recent event – probably waves spawned by Severe Cyclone Pam in March – was painfully evident. Although the logic behind an initial campsite remains sound, the chance that anything now survives and is discoverable after 78 years is vanishingly small.

Coral berm thrown up by recent storm event. TIGHAR photo by Lonnie Schorer. The work of the land team involved a daily commute of 1.5 miles each way from the landing channel, across the main lagoon passage, and up the northwest shoreline past the Norwich City shipwreck in temperatures that routinely exceeded 100°F. TIGHAR photo by Lonnie Schorer.
Conditions in the landing channel were among the most hazardous we have seen and, on one occasion, resulted in an incident that nearly cost the life of one of the team members. There were two days when the channel was too rough to even attempt a landing. TIGHAR photo by Mark Smith.
Taxi waiting. The Nai’a crew daily demonstrated their skill and courage handling the skiffs in the often turbulent landing channel. TIGHAR photo by Lonnie Schorer.  
The Niku VIII expedition enjoyed excellent communications capabilities via an Iridium Pilot satellite communications system installed and operated under the supervision of TIGHAR Communications Officer Lee Paynter. Lee also conducted shortwave radio broadcasts on frequencies approximating harmonics of Earhart’s transmitter and was able to establish contact with dozens of stations in the U.S. and elsewhere. TIGHAR photo by Ric Gillespie.
Fortunately the weather and sea conditions moderated greatly during the last days of the expedition, when the Betchart Amelia Earhart Expedition arrived aboard the cruise ship Fiji Princess. There were 61 tourists who were eager to visit the sites on the island associated with TIGHAR’s discoveries and carry out some searching of their own under the supervision of TIGHAR’s Senior Archaeologist, Dr. Tom King, and a staff of experienced TIGHAR expedition veterans. They did excellent work and made some potentially important observations and discoveries. TIGHAR photo by John Clauss.

Nai’a and the Niku VII team departed Nikumaroro on the evening of June 25 and arrived back in Fiji on June 29 after a record-setting but rugged four day voyage. The TIGHAR team ended the expedition undaunted and in high spirits, convinced that we’re on the path to conclusively solving the mystery of the Earhart disappearance and eager to move the project forward. As with all ten previous TIGHAR expeditions to Nikumaroro, the results of Niku VIII will not be known until the data collected have been compiled, analyzed, and evaluated. We’ll report on new findings as they come in.

Our sincere thanks to everyone who helped make Niku VIII possible.

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
Bella Energy


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

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