Volume 12 Number 2/3
October, 1996
NIKU III: Once And For All

The objective of the expedition is to find, photograph and, where practical, recover additional physical evidence relating to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. The scientific party will be comprised of 14 individuals and, as with previous expeditions, a representative of the Republic of Kiribati will monitor all activity at the island. Fourteen days of operations at Nikumaroro are planned. Departure from the United States is set for February 20, 1997. The expedition is scheduled to return on March 18.

Search operations during Niku III will focus on three areas.

Village Survey

A team under the direction of noted archaeologist Thomas F. King, Ph.D., (TIGHAR #0391CE) will conduct a survey of the island’s formerly settled areas. The detailed exploration of the densely overgrown village will be aided by digitized and enhanced aerial photos of the settlement taken in its heyday, keyed to global positioning system (GPS) technology provided by Trimble Navigation, Ltd. The methodology to be employed will involve identifying specific formerly-inhabited sites and carefully clearing away subsequent overgrowth and fallen vegetation to permit both visual and remote-sensing inspection. It is hoped that this survey will uncover artifacts which will be conclusively identifiable as components salvaged from the Earhart Electra. Tom has extensive archaeological experience in Micronesia and served as Project Archaeologist on TIGHAR’s Niku I expedition in 1989.

Lagoon Search

A smaller team will operate a launch especially outfitted with remote-sensing technology with which to search the lagoon floor for large metal targets. An electromagnetic (EM) sensor and a Schonstedt Instruments underwater magnetometer will detect the presence of both ferrous and non-ferrous objects while a sub-bottom profiling sonar unit will provide information on the general size and shape of targets, even if they are buried under silt and sand. Promising targets will be excavated, inspected and photographed by divers. Accurate search transects will be achieved through GPS navigation. It is hoped that the lagoon search will yield the main body of wreckage of the Earhart aircraft.

Aukaraime Survey

A third team will seek to locate further personal effects and possibly even human remains in Aukaraime (south) District, the area where previously recovered artifacts and island folklore indicate that Earhart and Noonan may have perished. Methodology will be similar to that employed by the Village Survey team but will also include the deployment of a Geonics EM38 Ground Conductivity Meter. Scholarly opinion holds that human remains encountered by Gilbertese laborers were probably buried near the site of discovery and the graves marked, but not necessarily in a durable fashion. An EM38 sweep of the suspect area could identify a now-unmarked grave.

To provide aerial reconnaissance and photographic support for the search teams, the expedition will be equipped with a two-place, Quicksilver MXL Sport R 583, ultra-light type aircraft on floats.

The Niku III expedition will be led by TIGHAR’s Executive Director Richard E. Gillespie.


On February 20, 1997 the expedition team will fly nonstop to Fiji aboard Air Pacific, the national airline of Fiji. On February 22 the team will board the 120ft motor sailer Nai’a for the 1,000 mile journey to the Phoenix Islands. Nai’a is widely recognized as one of the finest dive excursion ships operating in the South Pacific. A five day voyage will bring the expedition to Nikumaroro for approximately two weeks of search and archaeological operations. On March 18 the team will arrive back in Fiji for the return flight to the U.S.


Accompanying TIGHAR’s Niku III expedition will be an ABC News film crew. The network plans to use the footage they shoot in the production of two one-hour television documentaries to air this year. One will be featured on ABC’s acclaimed Turning Point series and the other will air on The Discovery Channel.

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