Dogs are sniffing out buried bones on a Pacific island while a forgotten photo may bolster a popular theory
THE quest to determine the fate of pilot Amelia Earhart and close the book on one of the aviation world’s greatest mysteries is going to the dogs ... and also to the photo archives.
The cable channel History premiered a special about Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance centered on a recently-discovered photo from the National Archive. The photo is alleged to feature both Earhart and Noonan in 1937 on a dock on Jaluit Island, a part of the Marshall Islands.
According to National Geographic, four border collies -- Berkeley, Piper, Marcy and Kayle -- embarked on a voyage in late June to the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro (previously called Gardner Island) in the western Pacific Ocean. The remote triangular coral atoll, less than five miles long and two miles wide, is widely speculated as the location where Earhart and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, performed an emergency landing during their ill-fated 1937 world flight.
Retired federal agent Les Kinney did his own kind of sniffing while searching for Earhart by digging through records in the National Archive. Among the many documents he sifted through, the photo above, stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor,” may be the most conclusive bit of evidence regarding Earhart and Noonan’s fates.
The photo was the centerpiece of History’s special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.” It premiered July 9.
For the program, two different analysts -- Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst and Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition -- studied the photo. Carner deemed the photo to authentic and unaltered, while Gibson declared it “very likely” that the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan, especially based on the profile of the figure in the background. The two also identified as the vessel in the background as the Japanese military ship Koshu Maru. The Koshu Maru is alleged to be towing an aircraft about 38 feet long, the same length as Earhart’s plane, the Elektra.
The photograph may lend credence to the theory that the two aviators were knocked off course, landed (or crashed) in the Marshall Islands and were subsequently captured by the Japanese. According to NBC News, Japanese officials have no record of Earhart or Noonan ever being captured.
Not everyone is ready to declare the photo a solution to the Earhart mystery, however. Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum, told Smithsonian Magazine, “I can’t really comment definitively on the photograph, and I don’t think [History investigators] can either” and followed up by noting that the photograph is “kind of blurry.”
Cochrane doesn’t discount the photograph entirely, but said that it simply adds “another layer, another page in the search for Amelia, and especially in this particular theory.”
Others have discounted the photo entirely, however.
A Japanese military history blogger, Kota Yamano discredited the documentary’s claims following a quick image search online to discover that the photo was apparently published in 1935, not 1937, as the documentary claimed.
Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, likewise dismissed the photo while speaking to The Guardian.
“This is just a picture of a wharf at Jaluit [in the Marshall Islands], with a bunch of people,” Gillespie said. “It’s just silly. And this is coming from a guy who has spent the last 28 years doing genuine research into the Earhart disappearance and led 11 expeditions into the South Pacific.”
History announced that it would launch an investigation about the findings and are “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart and we will be transparent in our findings.”
“Ultimately, historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers,” a History spokesperson said in a statement to NPR.
The right nose for the job
Concrete evidence of Earhart and Noonan surviving as castaways on Nikumaroro has never been found, there have been some intriguing clues. These include a piece of scrap metal that likely came from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E, a sextant box, and fragmented remains of U.S. beauty and skin care products that may date back to the 1930s.
The most intriguing find, however, happened in 1940 with the discovery of 13 bones under a tree on the island’s southeast corner. The remains were shipped to Fiji and subsequently misplaced, but measurements recorded before their loss and examined later by forensic anthropologists indicate that they may have belonged to “a tall white female of northern European ancestry.” With these findings were recently thrown into doubt, the only true way to know if the remains belong to Earhart or Noonan is to find the remaining bones.
The four dogs, officially known as Human Remains Detection Dogs, are part of the latest expedition organized by TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery). Trained at the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF), these specialized dogs are capable of sniffing out bones centuries old and buried as much as 9 feet deep.
“No other technology is more sophisticated than the dogs,” Fred Hiebert, archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, which is sponsoring the canines, said in a statement. “They have a higher rate of success identifying things than ground-penetrating radar.”
According to the ICF, detection dogs are never trained to smell out live humans, focusing instead on old cases, small scent sources and residual scent. They also excel at locating remains without disturbing the burial site.
You can view one of the ICF dogs in action, seeking out the remains of ancient Native American burial sites, in the video above.
“This kind of searching requires the dog to be slow and methodical and keep its nose just above the surface of the ground, any fast moves and the dog can miss the grave,” the group explains. “It takes many years of slow and patient training to develop the skills needed to do this work.”
Once remains are detected, the dogs generally do little more than lie down on top of the potential burial site. Should Berkeley, Piper, Marcy and Kayle detect anything, TIGHAR’s archeologists will perform a careful excavation to uncover the source.
In addition to using canines, the team from TIGHAR will also take time over the eight-day expedition to survey sites on Nikumaroro using metal detectors and even an advanced underwater drone. Their greatest hope, however, lies with the highly advanced noses of the very good boys and girls sniffing out an 80-year-old mystery.
“If the dogs don’t find anything, we’ll have to think about what that means,” Hiebert added. “But if the dogs are successful, it will be the discovery of a lifetime.”
This story originally published in June 2017, has been updated with new information.