Niku IX is a TIGHAR-affiliated independent expedition organized and led by Dr. Tom King in association with a Betchart Expeditions tourist cruise to Nikumaroro. Dr. King, assisted by a staff of experts, will supervise on-shore research conducted by Betchart passengers. In addition, the National Geographic Society is sponsoring the use of four “forensic dogs” from the Institute for Canine Forensics. The dogs will search for human bones from which DNA might be extracted. TIGHAR is supporting the expedition with research and assets for underwater search operations to find identifiable pieces of the Earhart Electra. Representatives from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will also accompany the expedition to service underwater sensors collecting data on wildlife.

Daily Reports
Week 2
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 to the right (down at the bottom of the list) and then scroll up to read each posting in order. For previous weeks, click on the “Week” links above.

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Two more days of excavation at the Seven Site have not produced bones. The dogs cannot “smell bones.” They have an amazing ability to detect the scent of the chemicals that result from human decomposition. If a body was buried, digging where there is the scent of decomposition will usually result in discovering bones. However,the castaway of Gardner Island was not buried. The body’s decomposition undoubtedly stained the ground with scent but digging in that spot may not result in the discovery of bones.

There is some indication that further excavation of the “skull hole” may be warranted so today they’ll dig there. The skull, initially buried by the work party who found it, was later exhumed by Gallagher and sent to Fiji with the rest of the partial skeleton. The hope is that teeth fell out of the skull and are still in the hole. Teeth can be excellent repositories of DNA.

Kenton Spading believes his team has, with the help of the dogs, located the baby grave on the southern arm of the atoll but the site has been overwashed, the grave markers apparently washed away, and the area is now grown up to dense scaevola underbrush.

The team trying to locate the “cairn” at the northwest tip think they may have found it but they need to compare what they found to photographs taken in 2015.

Today, divers will search the bottom of the main lagoon passage – an excellent potential source for airplane debris. Wreckage that ended up on the reef surface would logically be driven toward the lagoon by storm surges. Calculations suggest they might tend to accumulate in the passage.

The expedition has two more days – today and tomorrow. It has often been the case that discoveries happen in the final moments of an expedition. Let’s hope that the tradition continues.


Seven Site Chronology

Archaeological excavation at the Seven Site in 2010 was extensive and the examination of the first 10cm of coral rubble was meticulous.
The forensic dogs are searching for the scent of human remains in an area where a castaway died and decomposed. Their abilities are truly extraordinary but their task is complicated by the many disturbances to the site that have occurred since a partial skeleton was found there in 1940. At that time the site was untouched open hardwood forest, but within a year the area was cleared and planted to coconut palms. During WWII, workers from the village regularly came to the site to tend the seedlings, and Coast Guardsmen from the nearby Loran station occasionally visited the site for target practice, littering the area with brass shell casings and broken Coast Guard crockery. After the war a small house of some kind was built on the site and, later still, apparently dismantled. Throughout the 1950s the site was occasionally visited by village youths hunting birds and turtles.

TIGHAR’s clearing and archaeological excavations in 2001, 2007, and especially in 2010, resulted in the detailed examination and inevitable scattering of the first 10 cm of the surface for much of the site. Finding bone now that has survived 80 years of disturbances to the site and has eluded TIGHAR’s previous efforts is a daunting challenge – even with forensic dogs.




Superimposed on this aerial photo of the Seven Site, taken from a kite in 2010, are the various archaeological units and lanes excavated by TIGHAR. Click on the image to open a much larger version in a new window.

No expedition update today due to a communications failure on this end. The problem is now resolved and we should be able to get the latest news and bring everyone up to date tomorrow. Sorry for the delay.

The 80th Anniversary

On the 80th anniversary of the the Earhart disappearance, Nikumaroro continues to guard its secrets.

High winds and rough seas yesterday meant no dive operations and excavations at the Seven Site did not produce bones. National Geographic will provide what information they choose to release about the dogs’ activities. We’ll post a link when they do. The “cairn” and the baby grave still elude discovery.

There was one curious discovery. A bottle found washed up on the island’s northwest end contains a message from one George Kembo of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, asking whoever finds the bottle to contact him. Milne Bay is 2,000 nautical miles from Nikumaroro. The message is dated November, 1987.


Discovery of the Seven Site

The Seven Site was discovered in 1996 but dismissed as being unrelated to the Earhart disappearance. The castaway was still just a rumor and none of the artifacts we came across seemed unusual. In this twelve-minute video from February 1996, TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie walks through the site, filmed by TIGHAR researcher Russ Matthews. Little did we know….


Yesterday, work continued at the Seven Site. A path was cleared from the Big Ren to the “skull hole” and the water collection tank so that those areas could be swept with metal detectors and by the dogs. Three metal detector “hits” were discovered and marked for future excavation. Typically, metal detector hits at the Seven Site are brass shell casings from Coast Guard target practice, but you never know when something more interesting will turn up. For updates on the dogs, visit National Geographic.

Anthropologist Dr. Nancy Farrell visited the newly discovered graveyard at the island’s northwest tip. She thinks the area might have been the site of a village that predated the island’s only known period of habitation (1939-1963). Little is known about the island prior to the early 19th century. No one was living there when Joshua Coffin, master of the Nantucket whaling ship Ganges, named the island after his father-in-law Congressman Gideon Gardner 1825.

The “cairn” of coral blocks seen in 2015 has still not been located.

Kenton Spading decided to postpone further attempts to locate the baby grave area where shoe parts were found in 1991 until dogs are available to help. Yesterday he helped Joe Cerniglia examine bottles at the site of the village dispensary. Joe is trying to determine whether any of the products represented by the bottles we’ve found at the Seven Site were in use by the settlers and should not be attributed to the castaway.

Divers Andrew McKenna and Keith Gordon made two dives trying to locate a metal object that was discovered embedded in the reef in 2015. They couldn’t find it. They’ll try again tomorrow.


Key Features at the Seven Site

The water collection tank was originally thought to have been brought from the village to provide water for Gallagher’s search for more bones in 1940, but further research suggests that it was installed to support the coconut seedlings that were planted at the site in 1941. Coconut seedlings require frequent watering. In 1948 the long trees were reported to be “not thriving” and by 1954 the planting had failed. The area subsequently grew up to thick scaevola underbrush.
The work party that found a human skull in the spring of 1940 buried it. Gallagher later exhumed it and sent it to Fiji with the other bones. A shallow, man-made depression in the ground at the Seven Site, when excavated, showed signs of a small original hole in a much larger later hole – as if someone was digging up the area to find the original hole. TIGHAR archaeologist Tom King opened the feature to a considerable depth hoping to find teeth that may have become dislodged from the skull, but with no success. The dogs may have better luck.

Today’s Profile

Kenton Spading

Kenton Spading is hydrologic engineer retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kent has been a TIGHAR member since 1992, and has served on expeditions to Newfoundland for Project Midnight Ghost and to Nikumaroro in 1997. He was instrumental in tracking down “WPHC File No. 4439 (G&E) 1940, Skeleton, Human, finding of, on Gardner Island.” In 1998 he accompanied Ric to England to examine and copy the file.

Getting Down To Work

Search operations got underway in earnest yesterday with a small team accompanying two dogs and their handlers to the Seven Site. An area roughly five meters in diameter was cleared in the vicinity of “The Big Ren,” a tree believed to be at or near the site where the castaway’s partial skeleton was found in 1940.

Another team with two dogs and handlers tried again to find the “cairn” seen in 2015 near the island’s northwest tip but had no luck re-locating that feature. They did, however, make a startling discovery – a graveyard with eight graves constructed in the traditional Micronesian fashion, outlined with small pieces of coral set on edge and large coral slabs standing at the head and foot. This end of the island was never developed, although plots of land were allotted to families during the island’s colonial period (1939-1963). Whether these previously unknown graves are from that time or from a much earlier prehistoric period of inhabitation is a mystery.

A third team led by TIGHAR researcher Joe Cerniglia re-located the ruins of the dispensary in the abandoned village. Many bottles litter that site and Joe is especially interested in comparing them to the bottles we have found at the Seven Site.

A team led by TIGHAR researcher Kenton Spading sought to re-locate the baby grave (see yesterday’s “A Closer Look – Grave Concerns)” but was defeated by dense undergrowth. They’ll try again, perhaps with help from the dogs. The baby grave site is where we found fragments of a rubber shoe sole and two shoe heels, on of them marked “Cat’s Paw Rubber Company USA” in 1991. Kenton was on the expedition examined the site again in 1997 but nothing further was found. He wants to take another look.

For more information about the activities of the forensic dogs, visit National Geographic.


The Big Ren

The Big Ren in 2010

According to the British Colonial Service officer who discovered the partial skeleton of a castaway in 1940, “Body had obviously been lying under a ‘ren’ tree and remains of fire, turtle and dead birds appear to indicate life. All small bones have been removed by giant coconut crabs which have also damaged larger ones.”

Ren is the local name for Tournafortia argentea, a hardy salt-tolerant tree common on Nikumaroro. There is a big Ren tree at the Seven Site. It may be the tree, or more likely a descendant of the tree, that sheltered the castaway’s final hours. It’s a prime location for searching for surviving bones.

Today’s Profile

Joe Cerniglia

Joe Cerniglia is a TIGHAR researcher who has been active in researching some of the bottles found at the Seven Site, in particular the ointment pot that contained “freckle creme” and a small bottle that probably contained Campana Italian Balm, a popular American hand lotion of the 1930s. Joe has been a member of TIGHAR since 2010 and completed TIGHAR’s Aviation Archaeology Field School at Loon Lake, Idaho in 2011. He served on Dr. Tom King’s staff during the 2015 Betchart trip to Nikumaroro.

Position – Standing off Nikumaroro

Click on the map to open a much larger version in a new window.

The expedition had a mostly successful first day at Nikumaroro. After four long days at sea, Reef Endeavor arrived shortly before 11:00am local time Thursday (9:00pm EDT Wednesday) to the considerable excitement of the passengers, most of whom would have to wait another day or two to get ashore while the TIGHAR, National Geographic, Canine Forensics teams accomplish the necessary preliminaries.

The first order of business was getting the aluminum, twin-engined launch into the lagoon. This turned out to be a challenge. The launch is bigger and heavier than the rigid-hulled inflatables TIGHAR traditionally uses and the tide was past its peak. At one point Andrew, John and members of the ship’s crew had to basically portage the launch over the shallowest areas, but they ultimately succeeded. There was not enough time, however. to buoy the coral heads in the lagoon; that will happen tomorrow.

The Gallagher Highway did get cleared from the landing channel to the lagoon beach below Club Fred. A small team used two-person kayaks to cross Tatiman Passage and made the trek to the northwest tip to locate the “cairn” noticed in 2015, but they were unable to find it. They’ll try again with a larger group tomorrow.

The WHOI divers retrieved shark sensors from the windward (northern) side of the reef and from off the Norwich City wreck. They also installed algae collection cages as described in yesterday’s update.

The dogs and their handlers were delighted to get ashore and the dogs seem to be doing well in the island environment. That’s about all we can say about the dogs. TIGHAR is contractually prohibited from reporting on the dogs’s activities on the island. As the sponsor of the dogs, National Geographic has the “first and exclusive opportunity” to release accounts of their activities in any format unless TIGHAR has clearance– so news about the dogs will have to come from National Geographic unless we get written permission from the Society’s Communications office.


Grave Concerns

There is no cemetery, as such, on Nikumaroro. During the island’s period of habitation (1939 to 1963) the dead were buried on land owned by, or alotted to, the deceased’s family. TIGHAR has, naturally, been interested in graves, or suspected graves, that do not appear to fit that model. All TIGHAR excavations of graves on Nikumaroro are done according to strict archaeological protocols and are only undertaken with the prior consent of the Kiribati representative. It is brutally hard work and the grave must be fully restored after investigation.

1. The “Cairn” (above)

During the 2015 Betchart trip, one of the volunteers noticed a long, narrow pile of coral chunks near the island’s northwest tip that could, conceivably, have been made by human hands. Could this be how Amelia buried Noonan? The 2017 expedition will investigate that remote possibility.

2. The Grave That Wasn‘t (right)

Graves on Nikmaroro are traditionally marked with a coral slab planted edgewise in the ground as a headstone, but such a slab can also be a property line marker. In 2001 we excavated what we thought might be a grave on the northwestern shore only to discover that it was only a property marker. TIGHAR archaeologist Gary Quigg is thinking about the wisdom of the old saying,“When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging..”

3. Nutiran Grave

Another coral slab on the northwestern shoreline was excavated in 2001 and proved to be the grave of a toddler.

4. Bottle Grave

A presumed grave on the southwestern shore near the abandoned village is uniquely outlined with bottles. It was not excavated.

5. Village Graves

Graves on family plots in the abandoned village fit the traditional pattern – coral slab headstone and border – and were not excavated.

6. Baby Grave

A small grave far from the village on the southern side of the island was excavated in 1991. It was found to contain the bones of an infant.




7. Seven Site Depression

A grave-like depression in the ground at the Seven Site was excavated in 2010 on the suspicion that it could be where Earhart buried Noonan. It contained only the remains of TIGHAR archaeologist Gary Quigg.

Today’s Profile

Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts is a Ph.D. aerospace engineer retired from Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works.” He has been a member of TIGHAR since 1995 and participated in TIGHAR’s survey of an Douglas B-23 Dragon at Loon Lake, Idaho and served on an expedition to Newfoundland looking for traces of L’Oiseau Blanc. Tom has been on two TIGHAR expeditions to Nikuamaroro (2007 and 2010). He was on Dr. Tom King’s staff for the 2015 Betchart trip to Niku, as he is on the 2017 expedition.

Click on the map to open a much larger version in a new window.

The expedition is on schedule to arrive at Nikumaroro shortly before 8:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time today. For them it will be almost noon. Andrew McKenna, John Clauss, and a couple of Reef Endeavor crew members will move a skiff into the lagoon as described in the report for Monday, June 26. On this trip, the lagoon boat will be a flat-bottomed aluminum skiff with twin outboard engines capable of carrying up to 12 people.

Dawn Johnson, Tom Roberts, Kenton Spading and other TIGHAR expedition veterans will use machetes to clear the Gallagher Highway.

The dogs and handlers will go ashore to let the pooches stretch their legs and acclimate to the island. The handlers plan to test the dogs’ ability to detect the presence of human remains in Niku environment at known grave sites in the abandoned village.

Meanwhile, the WHOI divers will install an algae collection cage in the water near the shipwreck. The cage will be collected at the end of the trip to provide samples of the kinds of algae that grow at Niku – important data for studying the reef’s ecosystem.

After everyone is back aboard, the ship will make a circumnavigation of the island to familiarize the 51 passengers with its size and features.

If all goes as planned today, the dogs will begin working the Seven Site (castaway campsite) tomorrow.


The Disappearing Seven Site

The castaway’s campsite was just inland from a place near the island’s southeastern end where a distinctive numeral 7 is visible in aerial photographs - hence the TIGHAR name “the Seven Site.” Over the decades, the naturally bare strip of coral that forms the 7 has grown in and is now obliterated.

In this aerial photo taken in 1938 the 7 is clearly visible. Photo courtesy Royal New Zealand Air Force Archive. In 2001, the 7 was still much as it was in 1938. Satellite photo courtesy SpaceImaging.
In 2007 the 7 was less distinct. Satellite photo courtesy DigitalGlobe. In 2011 the clearing done by TIGHAR in 2010 was obvious but the 7 was mostly gone. Satellite photo courtesy DigitalGlobe.
By 2015 nature had mostly undone TIGHAR’s work. TIGHAR photo byMark Smith. As shown in this March 21, 2017 satellite image, the vegetation has reclaimed the last vestiges of TIGHAR’s clearing and there is no longer a recognizable 7. Satellite photo courtesy DigitalGlobe.

Today’s Profile

Dawn Johnson

Archaeologist Dawn Johnson is a thirteen-year member of the Society for California Archaeology. She has been a member of TIGHAR since 2009 and serves on the organization’s Board of Directors. She assisted Dr. Tom King on the 2015 Betchart Expeditions trip to Nikumaroro.

Dawn has been active in coordinating with the Institute for Canine Forensics for the use of forensic dogs on Nikumaroro. During the 2015 Betchart trip she collected soil samples from various sites on the island for later use in tests to evaluate the dogs’ ability to detect the scent of human remains.

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The Members of the TIGHAR Board of Directors.

And the loyal membership of TIGHAR.

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