No, Nat Geo’s bone-sniffing dogs are not going to find Amelia Earhart’s skeleton.

Well, that didn’t take long. It’s only been about six months since Ric Gillespie and TIGHAR made their last rounds hoaxing all the world’s news agencies with his Amelia Earhart claims, and he’s already at it again. This time he has persuaded National Geographic to finance an expedition with bone-sniffing dogs — to look for her remains on an island that we know she could not possibly have gone to, but that is otherwise littered with bones from hundreds of people who lived and worked and died on the island for more than a century.

There is no chance that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan crashed on Nikumaroro, and no serious historians think so. But it makes good adventurous sounding “news”, so that’s why Nat Geo, Discovery, and others are so eager to promote the nonsense.

For decades, TIGHAR (a nonprofit formed by Gillespie to fund his Earhart obsession) has been successfully persuading National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and others into funding its various wild goose chases around the South Pacific. Gillespie’s claimed alternate histories for Earhart have never been persuasive to any serious historians, but since he’s the only one making noise, he’s the one whose press releases get trumpeted by the media.

There is no historical doubt to Earhart’s final resting place. She was in partial short-distance radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter Itasca as she ran out of fuel in the immediate vicinity of Howland Island, the planned refueling stop. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan had followed Itasca’s radio direction finding signal to get there. The water there is very deep, and it’s unlikely that much survives of the plane to ever be found. There’s never been any mystery surrounding her loss at sea.

For some reason, Gillespie thinks they flew instead to an island called Nikumaroro, a full ten degrees off the course they are known to have followed, and which their fuel onboard made it physically impossible to reach. Nikumaroro was inhabited by hundreds of people for decades before Earhart’s flight, but Gillespie has pointed to practically every speck of trash (including part of a shoe and a shard of glass) as proof that Earhart was on the island. Such an identification defies rationality, as Nikumaroro was a British colony of about 100 men, women, and children; a coconut plantation; and an American Coast Guard station. Communities of pearl divers lived, worked, and died on the island since the 1800s. The island is loaded with trash from all of those, long before Gillespie and his believers began looking for signs of Earhart. They will find anything they want to find.

But will Nat Geo’s bone-sniffing dogs find Amelia Earhart’s skeleton? Of course not. After parroting and promoting the TIGHAR press releases as aggressively as they have for decades now, and presumably having a fact-checking department, we have to conclude that Nat Geo doesn’t care whether the story is true or not. For an organization with such a storied history, it’s a bit sad.

For a comprehensive examination of history vs Gillespie, see the full Skeptoid episode #245 and all the primary bibliographic references. Here is a post with additional information. See this blog post for a discussion of the male arm bone Gillespie bizarrely asserts is Earhart’s. See this blog post for a discussion of yet another circus-like press release where he successfully persuaded newspapers to report a piece of trash as unequivocally part of her airplane.

Listen to science, history, and reason — not to sensationalized press releases.

(Correction 2017-07-16: An earlier version of this incorrectly identified the Coast Guard station as British. – BD)

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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24 Responses to No, Nat Geo’s bone-sniffing dogs are not going to find Amelia Earhart’s skeleton.

  1. Jii says:

    As Amelia stated, they were not OUT OF FUEL, but starting to run low of fuel – and they faced two choices: either fly a circle until they run out of fuel and drop into ocean and face certain death – or fly towards the biggest group of islands nearby (standard practice at the time which guarantees that you find an island even if you are out of course a bit). Good to remember that Amelia had so much extra excess fuel that they could barely take off with the plane.

    • Alexandria Nick says:

      Armed with this information

      1) They were within a few miles of Howland, based on the signal strength of their transmissions and their reported position.
      2) They were low on fuel after the long flight and loitered for over an hour attempting to locate Howland or the Itasca.
      3) There Coast Guard cutter in the area who had a rough idea of their location and would be available to begin an immediate search, should they make a water landing.

      They then thought their safest course was to turn and somehow fly 400 miles?

      Also, the “biggest group of islands nearby” would be Howland (a few miles away) or Baker (40+ miles away), not Nikumaroro 400 miles away. Even if they were exceedingly out of position, Howland and Baker would still be the closest.

      Based on the strength of the signal the Itasca was picking up, the timestamps of the received transmissions, and the position estimates, they didn’t have the fuel or time to have left a 200 mile radius of Howland. I don’t think it is too much of an assumption that they didn’t range too far north or south in their search for the island. I’d put good money on the wreck site being within 25 miles of Howland.

  2. SharonH says:

    Amelia Earhart ditched at sea–that’s pretty well accepted by now except by people who are either brain dead or see the means to make $$$ off her tragic flight. I too am surprised by NatGeo. Will they now fund an expedition to the South Pole to find the UFOs that Admiral Byrd supposedly encountered there? A sad day indeed when that organization has decided to stoop to such a low level.

    • Louise Hudson says:

      I agree i would have thought that National Geographic’s staff would be more logical than to spend their resources on a wild goose chase like this. This makes me wonder about the value of the organization in other areas as well. It’s been well-respected for many years. What could have happened?

    • Richard Schwartz says:

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  3. Peter Quilley says:

    Britain never had a Coast Guard Station on Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island).
    Earhard and Noonan were dependent on radio direction finding (RDF) to home in on Howland Island,from the air a tiny speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. Traditional navigational methods would not provide Noonan with the sufficient degree of accuracy required to locate the island.The raison d’etre for the presence of the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca was to transmit that homing signal. However, neither Earhart nor Noonan had ever located a destination by RDF before. The final stage of the longest and most difficult leg (2500 miles) of their round the world flight was not the appropriate time for them to put RDF into practice for the first time – if they were not successful the consequences would be fatal.

    • Brian Dunning says:

      The Coast Guard station on Nikumaroro was United States not Britain. 25 crew, 1944-1945. I see I have that wrong in the text and will update it now. Thanks.

  4. seesdifferent says:

    Nat Geo was bought by Rupert Murdoch two years ago. ‘Nuff said?
    AE said she had a half hour of fuel left. That’s specific. And she was certainly close to Howland, by the strength of the signal. That she did not see the smoke from the Itasca suggests she was not on the line. Since the western approaches have been searched, that means she must have been east of Howland i.e. she overshot the line, by far enough to not see the smoke over the western horizon from their altitude but close enough for the strong signal. The line of sight from 2000 feet is about 50 miles, and they may have been lower. If Nat Geo would fund further sonar explorations of the ocean southeast of Howland, they would probably solve this mystery. By funding bone sniffing dogs, they only write another bogus chapter, and prepare us for yet another chapter next year, and the next, etc.

    Betty’s notebook (Betty was an adolescent girl) is analogous to the thousands of bigfoot sightings. Wishful thinking, romantic ideas, seeking attention.

    These sort of hoaxes have many features and strategies in common. One talking point we often hear what I call “the raffle rationale”, and it goes something like this:
    “…if just one of these reports is true, then….”
    The idea being that there is some statistical law (there isn’t) that says that just because someone sells thousands of raffle tickets, means that one of the tickets is a winner. Or that thousands of people can’t be deluded or lie about the same thing (they can, and often are).

    • Brian Dunning says:

      You’re right in principle, but sounds like you’re unfamiliar with the cloud situation and the timings and directions. You should read the USN/USCG report. All this is covered thoroughly. See the 2017-07-18 Skeptoid episode for a map that shows the crash area.

      • Dudley Bokoski says:

        I’ve always been skeptical of the Betty messages. When Earhart went down it was reported in the New York Times that engineers said when salt water contacted the batteries there would be dangerous fumes in the cabin. Not to mention that the batteries would not keep working.

  5. Mudguts says:

    Brian Dunning… You really dont have a heart do you??

    I can see a fresh batch or Ameliaphiles arguing for another 5 years..

    I really hope you have a lot of popcorn.. lots and lots of pop corn..

  6. Bob Jase says:

    Even if Earhart had ended up on Nikumaroro, its been seventy years – tropical weather would have long ago erased any smell.

    Though I expect they’ll ‘find’ something to raise the next batch of funds on.

    • SharonH says:

      Has Nat Geo ever funded a Bigfoot expedition? That would be the height of absurdity. I thought they funded real scientists on research projects. They should have laughed this guy out of the building. Oh well, I guess times have changed.

  7. Ron Taylor says:

    It is interesting that Ric Gillespie is ALREADY stating that another TIGHAR expedition will be necessary. Worth remembering that his six figure salary depends on keeping this canard going.

  8. Ralph says:

    Biggest irony of all: who would remember Amelia Earhart today if she had simply completed her 1937 Round the World flight? There were many other aviatrixes (aviatrices to you language pedants) who succeeded in all their flights, lived to a ripe old age and are now barely recalled. Amelia and Amy Johnson are immortalised by their mysterious disappearances… Success is boring, tragic failure’s romantic.

    RMS Olympic anybody?

    • mudguts says:

      Wedding night eh?

    • Brian Dunning says:

      Might be time for you to read up on her list of records. It was remarkable. There are many reasons she was the most famous woman in the world for years, even before her disappearance.

  9. Nicolas Martin says:

    I don’t know. Drug-sniffing dogs can be prompted to find marijuana where it doesn’t exist.

    • April Hughes says:

      Yeah, no kidding. But it is fun seeing the cop and the dog getting increasingly frustrated when what they’re looking for doesn’t exist. You just have to be sure the cop can’t see you laughing at him/her. They have itchy trigger fingers these days.

      • WorkingInACopShop says:

        Nicholas and April: it is so cute to see people who have no idea what they are talking about.

        LEA (that is, Law Enforcement Agency) dogs are CERTIFIED and regularly RECERTIFIED in their function as are the handlers. A dog that fails is retired and stays home as a pet.

        And those “itchy trigger fingers” mentioned are the exception, not the rule.

        And none of that matters a patch on the subject of Amelia Earhart. Cadaver dogs can find organic materials from deceased persons, even in mud and water, but after 70 years they’re not going to find anything. Why would anybody rational would fund such an expedition?

        OH. I guess that was the point.

  10. Eric Taggart says:

    So does anyone have useful updates on the most recent news? Or does this prior analysis still hold up and recent news is just recycling/ignoring past analysis?

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