Bone-sniffing border collies might finally solve mystery of Amelia Earhart

This May 20, 1937 photo, provided by The Paragon Agency, shows aviator Amelia Earhart at the tail of her Electra plane at Burbank Airport in Burbank, Calif. It was a clear spring day in 1937 when Earhart, ready to make history by flying around the world, brought her personal photographer, Albert Bresnik, to a small Southern California airport to document the journey’s beginning.
This May 20, 1937 photo, provided by The Paragon Agency, shows aviator Amelia Earhart at the tail of her Electra plane at Burbank Airport in Burbank, Calif. It was a clear spring day in 1937 when Earhart, ready to make history by flying around the world, brought her personal photographer, Albert Bresnik, to a small Southern California airport to document the journey’s beginning. AP

Richard Gillespie has been searching for proof of what happened to Amelia Earhart for 28 years.

Now is the best opportunity in years, he said, to prove once and for all that his theory about what happened to Earhart is the correct theory. But he has to stay home.

And he’s happy about it.

“I don’t much like that place,” Gillespie said, talking about Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island, where he believes he may soon discover Earhart’s remains. “You are away from home for a month, you are at sea for five days getting in, five days getting home, you’re working hard. It’s tough work.”

Gillespie has led 11 expeditions to this remote island in the Pacific and has become one of the world’s leading experts, as the director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery.

So as the latest boat set outs Saturday night from Fiji, he will have to check in by satellite phone, to hear whether a pack of bone-sniffing border collies, perhaps howling in the background, will even survive the five-day ocean trip, the 90- and 100-degree temperatures, and avoid being attacked by giant crabs, to sniff out bones from a body that disappeared 80 years ago.

What happened

Everyone agrees that Earhart took off with Fred Noonan on July 2, 1937, setting out for tiny Howland Island. Mystery and fierce debate shroud just about everything after that.

But Gillespie is quite sure that Earhart landed her plane on a flat strip of coral reef during the low tide on Nikumaroro.

You could talk to Dorothy Cochran, at the National Air and Space Museum, Gillespie said, and she’d explain how every piece of evidence that proves what happened, might not have happened. Or you could talk to Mike Campbell, who, he said, thinks Gillespie is part of an international conspiracy to hide the fact that Earhart was a spy captured by the Japanese.

But the evidence is becoming more and more clear, to Gillespie.

When Earhart landed on the reef, for the next six days she sent out distress signals over the radio on her plane. He and his group of expedition researchers have analyzed records of the radio traffic at the time. There are dozens of calls that, he said, are authentic. And by triangulating where the radio signals were received, he said, you find an intersection point: Nikumaroro.

The radio calls went out for six days, he said, but then stopped as, he believes, the high tide washed the plane back into the ocean. Earhart had to run the plane’s engines to power the radio every day, so the radio signals stopped when the plane washed away.

Two days later, the Navy sent a warship with planes to circle over the island. Nikumaroro was hundreds of miles from where Earhart was supposed to be. But during one of her last confirmed transmissions, she said that she was on a navigational line. Gillespie thinks it may have just been the wrong one.

The Navy was two days late to see the wreckage, but the pilots did notice that there were signs of habitation on the island. Which is strange, Gillespie said, because Nikumaroro would not be inhabited for another two years, when Britain tried to turn the island into a small center for producing coconut, from 1939 to 1963. The islanders, who Gillespie tracked down years later, talked about the myth of a plane crash on the island, and, on his first expedition, they found plane parts that they thought could have been from her plane.

In 1940 a British colonial officer found part of a woman’s shoe and a navigational tool, near 13 human bones. These could be Earhart’s remains, the officer thought, so he notified his superiors, who had him ship the bones to Fiji to be examined. But the whole thing was kept hush-hush, so when a local doctor declared that they were the bones of a stocky local man, the bones were discarded and lost.

The discovery of the bones was largely forgotten until Gillespie and his organization discovered a file in the British archives in 1998 that kept a record of what happened, including descriptions of the bones. Some archaeologists, he said, later looked at the bones and said that, actually, they would be characteristic of a northern European female, about 5 feet 7 inches tall. A perfect description of Earhart, Gillespie said.

The trip

National Geographic is paying for the pack of border collies. Gillespie doesn’t remember who had the idea, originally, but the idea of using dogs to try to sniff out Earhart’s remaining 193 bones has been floating around for a few years, he said.

It’s not an easy expedition for humans, let alone dogs, he said. After flying all the way to Fiji, it takes about five days by boat, weather permitting, to reach Nikumaroro, which only appears about 10 miles out as a small line on the horizon until the turquoise lagoon comes into view.

Then you have to disembark onto an engine-powered raft to navigate through a small channel, often past roaming sharks. The instructions for one of these expeditions, which cost around a half-million dollars, ask potential explorers to pack their hiking boots and socks in a water-proof baggie until they reach the shore.

The temperatures are routinely in the 90s and often 100s, and large crabs patrol the beach, though there are no snakes or mosquitoes. There isn’t even that much dirt on the island.

Nikumaroro is an atoll, a volcano that has eroded away over millions of years, leaving a lagoon surrounded by coral reef that protrudes from the ocean. The only dirt comes from the vegetation that has eroded away, Gillespie said. The island is about three miles long and one mile wide; it looks like a human footprint from above.

So the dogs will have to sniff their way, along this rough terrain, to uncover the whiff of a human bone that has likely been eroding for 80 years and, perhaps with any luck, was taken in by a crab and buried. If the ground temperature is greater than 80 degrees, the dogs won’t be able to detect anything.

If, by chance, they succeed, they hope that some mitochondrial DNA has been preserved in the bone. Earhart has a living female relative, and her DNA could be used to verify whether the bone is Earhart’s.

While National Geographic is searching for her bones, Gillespie’s group will send scuba divers to continue to search the shallows around the island for her missing plane.

“It’s pretty certain she did land, survive for a time and then die on this island,” Gillespie said, but a piece of the plane or one of her bones would go a long way to overcome the doubts of those who still think she just ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean.


The island doesn’t have any fresh water, so Earhart would have had to retrieve water that had collected on the large leaves and hollowed-out tree roots, and then boil it on a fire. Gillespie and his team, over the course of 11 trips, found a bottle that had been heated at the bottom but not at the top.

She would have had ample food to eat, with clams as large as footballs, Gillespie said, and seabirds. “The seabirds are pretty nasty,” he said. “But you can walk right up to them and wring their neck if that’s what you need to do.”

But they figured she probably also would need to eat fish, which she would have speared in the lagoon. On one trip, he said, the metal detector went off at a site where he thinks Earhart was building fires, and he dug up a piece of metal with his trowel. It didn’t look like much, but when he brought it back to be examined by a knife expert at the time, they identified exactly the type of pocketknife it would have come from, the same kind of knife, it so happens, that Earhart was supposed to have taken with her on the trip.

And so on future expeditions they went back to that spot to find other pieces of the knife, the blades of which, he thinks, she attached to the end of a stick and turned into a spear.

Gillespie thinks she could have survived for months, though probably not a year. Even the British islanders eventually left the island in 1963 after several years of almost no rain.

Indiana Jones

This current trip with the dogs sets out on Saturday, should hit land on June 28 and will last eight days on the island, before setting back for the five-day trip home. On one of the previous trips, the group advertised a luxury Amelia Earhart cruise for 60 people who would take the five-day journey back with them.

The work is not like Indiana Jones, Gillespie said. It’s tiring, tedious and dangerous and, even when you do find something, like the piece of pocketknife, you often don’t know whether it’s meaningful or not for months or years into the future.

So before sundown, as the scuba divers, forensic scientists and archeology diggers return to the boat, each takes a hot shower, eats sashimi and drinks a beer, before they hold a team meeting for the night, to discuss what happened that day and what the plans are for the next day.

Most of them are so tired they head right to sleep. But some of them, he said, stay up late into the night, telling each other stories.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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