In August 2019, Robert Ballard, the deep-sea explorer renowned for uncovering the Titanic and John F. Kennedy’s WWII patrol boat, embarked on a mission to find the aircraft central to history’s most enduring mystery: Amelia Earhart’s downed Lockheed Model 10-E Electra.
The Mysterious Disappearance
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were en route to Howland Island in the Pacific, approximately 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu. They had already achieved remarkable feats, such as being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and from Hawaii to the U.S. Mainland. Their global expedition was the latest in a series of incredible accomplishments for the aviation pioneer.
However, Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland. Somewhere along the way, the Electra became too heavy and short on fuel. The pilot and her navigator lost sight of the tiny, two-and-a-half-square-mile island in the middle of the ocean, and no one knows precisely what happened next.
The Disappearance Theory
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Electra simply ran out of fuel and crash-landed somewhere close to Howland, sinking thousands of feet into the ocean. That’s the belief of the U.S. government, at least.
Yet, others speculate that Earhart and Noonan instead landed approximately 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland, touching down on the coral reef barrier surrounding Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro Island. Advocates of this theory point to distress radio calls originating from the island over several nights following the purported crash.
Ballard and Allison Fundis of the Ocean Exploration Trust explored the waters off Nikumaroro, while a team of archaeologists from National Geographic combed the island in search of plane traces.
The Coconut Crab Connection
During the expedition, National Geographic reported on a theory that could explain what happened to Earhart and Noonan if they landed near Nikumaroro: Noonan died, the Electra floated away, and Earhart lived for weeks on the island with no companions but the indigenous, three-foot-long coconut crabs.
This theory proposes that Amelia Earhart eaten by these Coconut Crabs after she perished on the island. In 1940, British settlers found 13 bones, including a skull, on the island—potentially Amelia Earhart’s, according to a telegram sent after the discovery. Further examination, however, led doctors to conclude that the bones belonged to a short, European male, although some anthropologists disagreed with this assessment.
Macabre Experiments and Bones
If the 13 bones did belong to Earhart, what happened to the other 193 in a human skeleton that weren’t found? The Brits who discovered the bones mentioned that “coconut crabs had scattered many bones,” as per the National Geographic report.
To test this theory, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) provided the crabs with a pig carcass to feast on. The results were astonishing—the crabs swarmed the pig’s body, removing most of its flesh and moving some of the bones as far as 60 feet away. “This tells us crabs drag bones,” said TIGHAR’s Tom King to National Geographic.
Despite Ballard and his team leaving Nikumaroro without finding the Electra, the search may not be over. National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert and his team may have found skull fragments from 1940 in the Te Umwanibong Museum and Cultural Centre in Tarawa, Kiribati. Forensic anthropologists suggested it belonged to an adult female.
“We don’t know if it’s [Earhart] or not,” stated the University of South Florida’s Erin Kimmerle to National Geographic, “but all lines of evidence point to the 1940 bones being in this museum.” Kimmerle reconstructed the skull, and the team sent it out for DNA testing. Earlier this year, Hiebert informed Radio Kiribati that the DNA results showed the bones belonged to a young Polynesian woman who had lived in Kiribati 1,000 years ago, as reported by Radio New Zealand.
Most recently, on September 2, 2023, TIGHAR announced that an underwater photo from 2009 might be proof that Earhart’s plane rests off the coast of Nikumaroro Island. The exact photo location remains unknown, but a forensic imaging specialist is currently analyzing it.
We might never truly know what happened to Amelia Earhart—whether she was consumed by crabs or met up with D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa to reside on a beach in Mexico. Nevertheless, more than 80 years after her disappearance, Earhart’s story continues to be as relevant as ever.
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