How do you solve a problem like Amelia?

Deep-sea explorer Bob Ballard and expedition leader Allison Fundis have a new theory on what happened to Amelia Earhart.

Expedition Amelia aims to investigate the theory that famed solo pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan tragically ended up as castaways on a speck of an island in the Pacific, after crash-landing during the final leg of Amelia’s famous quest to circumnavigate the globe in 1937. A fearless explorer and trailblazer, Amelia’s dream and passion ultimately cost the aviator her life.

Famed National Geographic deep-sea explorer Bob Ballard and Chief Operating Officer and Expedition Leader Allison Fundis led the seabed search for signs of the aviation pioneer’s Lockheed Electra 10E twin engines – the only parts of the fragile aluminium plane that would have survived the tropical waters since being claimed by the ocean 80 years ago.

They sat down with us to discuss the challenges faced on their equally ambitious quest, and how an icon like Amelia manages to inspire and intrigue, even years after her mysterious disappearance.

What drew you to this expedition specifically?

Bob Ballard: Definitely the challenge of it. I’ve been exploring the ocean’s mysteries for many years and I’ve discovered ships that have been perfectly preserved all over the world. We know that the deep sea is a preserver of human history, and we knew that if Amelia Earhart’s plane was down there, we certainly had the technology and the know-how to find it.

Allison Fundis: I really do think our and National Geographic’s inspiration was really because of Amelia Earhart and who she was, how she lived her life, and that’s what this documentary highlights so beautifully. She was a barrier-breaking pioneer and an inspiration, and continues to be, for so many, over 80 years since her disappearance. We’re standing on the shoulders of 30 years’ worth of research around this particular atoll of Nikumaroro Island in the middle of the Pacific, and we were really compelled by some of the evidence uncovered. Particularly the triangulations of radio distress calls, and some telling pieces of evidence found on the island itself. We really wanted to work together to close the chapter on the final days of Amelia’s life.

Bob, you would have been about three years old when she disappeared – did your family talk to you about that time when the initial search was on after Amelia’s disappearance?

Bob: Yes, especially my mother and my grandmother, they were both born in Kansas, just like Amelia. And of course, I was as well, and my father went on to be an aviator, so Amelia was definitely a figure of prominence in our family. In many ways I went on this expedition for them: she was such a motivation for women, didn’t take no for an answer. And of course, there’s the challenge of it. Finding the Titanic extremely difficult, the Bismarck was even more difficult – you don’t polish these off in one cruise, it takes multiple expeditions. Luckily, we’ve received funding from our government to spend the next 10 years mapping this area, so we’re waiting on the forensic DNA results from the bones found buried on the island and the soil tested to be compared to her sister’s DNA signature. So, while the forensic scientists are doing their work, we’ve moved on to the more daunting theory, focusing off Howland Island, where we’re really having much more technological challenges, so we’re shifting our focus and we’ll be at it with literally 10 years’ worth of funding to track her down.

Allison, have you always been interested in deep-sea exploration?

Allison: I was quite young when Bob discovered the Titanic. I grew up in Tennessee, which is not very close to the ocean at all. But I always had an adventurous spirit, and my older brother and I would pour over National Geographic and go into the woods behind our house and pretend to be explorers ourselves. I was really inspired by Bob and I feel very honoured to be a part of this team, working alongside him on such an expedition like this. So, definitely a dream come true for me.

Bob: I have to add, I feel that in many ways like Louis Leakey, who was a great explorer for National Geographic in Africa. He became Jane Goodall’s mentor, so I sort of think of being Louis Leakey and Allison being Jane. And Jane was a lot like Amelia, and I can tell you, Allison is a lot like Amelia.

Are you influenced at all by the different theories surrounding Amelia’s possible fate?

Bob: Yes, we are certainly aware of all the theories surrounding her disappearance, from the Pacific Ocean crash just off Howland Island, to crash-landing on Nikumaroro and even being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. We’ve received emails from all these conspiracy theorists, and this is very common with these historic investigations. Any time that you get near a piece of history like the Titanic or Shackleton’s Endurance or Amelia Earhart, etc. you have camps. We simply don’t have a dog in this fight. Our job is to find out which one is right. And we’ll be at it until we achieve that. This show is about bringing you along on our journey, our investigative efforts.

Knowing what you do about Amelia, what do you think she’d add to this conversation today?

Bob: Oh, she’d be as confident as we are that we’d find her. She was a confidant woman and I’ve met women like her, and they are daunting. I mean, I would have loved to have been able to meet her.

Allison: Yes, I think she would have loved us adding to the final chapter of her story. I’m sure that if she did, indeed, perish as a castaway on Nikumaroro, she would have given it her all to survive, she would have been ingenious on those survival methodologies. We’d love to figure out what that story was, we just want to honour her final days.

It must have been quite emotional, being there on this inhospitable deserted island where we imagine Amelia spent her final days – did it affect you at all?

Allison: Oh definitely! I have chills just thinking about it now. When you walk on the path where we think she could have landed her plane, that was very emotional. It’s a very sobering moment, trying to put yourself in her place, imagining how terrified she must have been and the extent of her struggle and her ultimate fate.

Bob: Yes, we went on the island itself, and it’s totally deserted and hot. Just a terrible place to find yourself. I’m sure she pulled out all the stops to survive. There are also these giant coconut crabs, just waiting. Can you imagine how horrible that must be? They feed on the colony of birds nesting on the island, the crabs snatch the young birds. I can’t imagine living out your final moments waiting for that fate.

Are you ever in any real danger in these expeditions? 

Bob: Well yes, I’ve been on dangerous expeditions in the past, and I’ve had many close calls. But these days I don’t go underwater myself, I send robots (laughs). I just report to insurance companies when I lose a robot. So no, it’s not dangerous to me or any of my crew. It was, however, dangerous to our vehicles; we were definitely pushing our technology to their limits. I’m looking at Allison, and by the big smile on her face I know exactly what she’s smiling about. We took our ship very, very close to the dangerous coral reefs with the waves breaking for a specific drone shot – you won’t miss it! We didn’t want to end up as another ship on the reef, and we could see the wreck of the Norwich City and our captain was not eager to join it!

Allison: Yes, one of the biggest challenges was the terrain we were working on, the deep volcanic atoll. We tend to focus more on the depths, not necessarily close to shore, so that really gave us some anxiety. Bob wasn’t worried at all though!

How many teams did you employ on this expedition?

Allison: This was a logistically heavy expedition for us. At Nikumaroro we had two ships on site, and since we didn’t really know what we were going to come across when we got to the island, we really had to prepare ourselves for any scenario. That meant preparing for a range of search, as well as recovery methodologies. Between the two ships, we had a land-based team of archaeologists the two forensic dogs, as well as the scuba diving team. And then on our ship the EV-Nautilus, we had the autonomous search-vessel teams for mapping shallower depths that the ship can’t access. And then our ship itself had a whole mounted sonar that can map the deeper waters and terrain. Those maps where then used to deploy the remotely operated vehicles, tethered to and piloted from the ship. These were mounted with high-definition cameras and we used them to “mow the lawn” to systematically search the seafloor for clues, traces of aluminium or pieces of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra. On top of that, we also had drones to search the perimeter of the island where both of our ships couldn’t access. We really ensured that we could cover all the terrain, leaving no stone unturned.

Was there anything that surprised you while you were on this expedition? 

Bob: There was a ship that ran aground on the reef surrounding Nikumaroro, years before Amelia’s plane supposedly landed there, called the USS Norwich City. It sat there and slowly disintegrated over time, all the way up to today. What was interesting is the possibility that her plane tumbled down the side of this volcanic island and came to rest on its slope. It’s then possible that it moved further down through mass wasting, much like how sediment comes off a mountain, moved away from the original crash site into even deeper water. We could see this because here was the metal Norwich City, shedding its iron parts over miles down a slope, to over a thousand feet below. It showed us how things moved down these volcanic slopes. So, if Amelia’s plane landed here on the north of the island as the experts believed, we were able to follow and map all the channels and tributaries to see how the coral was moving down those slopes. And in that coral debris, we would expect to see aluminium pieces of the plane. But we saw nothing. But that’s our job, we don’t have a dog in this fight and we’re eliminating a lot of theories, and we continue our investigation as we move into another and another area.

Expedition Amelia airs Sunday 3 November on National Geographic (181) at 20:00

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