The man who famously discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1986 is now leading an expedition to locate the plane of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances during her 1937 attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.
As part of this search, underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard and his crew have been exploring the waters of Nikumaroro—a remote coral atoll in the South Pacific which measures just 4.4 miles long—aboard the state-of-the-art research ship E/V Nautilus.
Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan began their multi-stop trip around the world on May 20, 1937, taking off from Oakland, California. By July, they found themselves in the South Pacific, but on the 2nd of that month they disappeared without a trace as they were heading towards tiny Howland Island after taking off from New Guinea.
"There are various theories about where Amelia's plane landed, and some of them are a little wild," Ballard told National Geographic.
There are several candidates for where Earhart and her navigator landed, including the Marshall Islands, Saipan and even New Jersey. Meanwhile, other theories suggest that their specially adapted Lockheed Electra 10E plane crashed and sank.
But one of the most credible hypotheses is that Earhart landed on the flat reef at Nikumaroro—an uninhabited territory that's part of the nation of Kiribati—after being unable to locate Howland.
Researchers from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)—who have been investigating this hypothesis for many years—say Earhart's last confirmed radio transmissions, which indicated the plane's direction of travel, point towards this scenario.
After this message, radio operators also received 57 unconfirmed transmissions which may have been sent by Earhart, indicating that if the plane had landed successfully, it had not sustained too much damage, given that the communications equipment appeared to be working. However, in this scenario it is likely that the tide eventually swept the Electra off the reef and into the sea.
TIGHAR researchers have conducted multiple investigations of the island over the years but have left empty-handed. However, Ballard's ship may have a better shot at finding something given that it is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including an array of underwater sensors, two remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) with onboard cameras, an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV,) and several drones.
Ballard's expedition has focused on mapping the terrain around the island and combing the data for "anomalies," as well as conducting visual searches with the ROVs. "Everything I ever found was found visually," Ballard said.