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The Search for Amelia Earhart

This is the story of how the search for Amelia Earhart led one man to discover a decades-old message in a bottle, and how, inspired by the find, his colleague sent a message of his own, and received a response. Did you catch all that? There will be a quiz 🙂

Here’s the story straight from the TIGHAR’s mouth, so to speak. Kenton Spading, Amelia Earhart researcher, wrote me to explain how this all happened:

“I have been researching the mystery surrounding the July 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart since 1992 through my membership in The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). TIGHAR approaches the Earhart/Noonan mystery through the application of the scientific method. In that light TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro (Niku) Hypothesis proposes that Earhart/Noonan landed on Gardner Island (now Niku).

Amelia Earhart Message in a Bottle: Nikumaroro

Nikumaroro is a tiny island waaaay out in the Pacific Ocean where TIGHAR believes Amelia Earhart may have spent her final days.

Amelia Earhart Message in a Bottle: Close Up of Nikumaroro

Even when you zoom in, it’s just a wisp of land in a vast sea.

“Our first expedition to the island occurred in 1989, and we have been there 13 times since. I was a member of the 1997 and 2017 expeditions. On these expeditions…We primarily explored four areas on the island of which the “Seven Site” comprised the main dig in search of human bones. National Geographic Society staff accompanied us on the expedition and sponsored the transportation to the island of four Historical Human Remains Detection canines from the Institute for Canine Forensics. The dogs “Alerted” at the Seven Site, confirming that a human(s)/Castaway(s) died there.

Amelia Earhart Message in a Bottle: Kenton Spading of TIGHAR with friends.

Kenton, second from right, with Fijian crew members from the M.V. Reef Endeavour.

Discovery of a Message in a Bottle

“On July 2, 2017 a team that included Tom Jagger was working at the Nutiran end of the island. Tom and his teammates were walking along the beach at the Northwest tip of the island. A large storm had tossed pieces of coral and debris high up the steeply sloping beach inland on the island. Tom spotted a small amber medicinal type bottle approximately 3 inches long…He noticed what appeared to be a piece of paper inside.

Amelia Earhart Message in a Bottle: Tom Jagger with the message in a bottle he found while looking for Amelia Earhart.

Tom with the message in a bottle he found. Photo: Kenton Spading.

“After dinner onboard the M.V. Reef Endeavour Tom retrieved the bottle, and we opened it to reveal this hand-written note.”

Amelia Earhart Message in a Bottle: Close up of the message in a bottle found by Tom Jagger

The message in a bottle Tom found. Photo: Kenton Spading.


George Kambu

United Church


Rossel Island

Milne Bay Province

If anyone will find this bottle, please he or she must write to this above address. 14/11/87

Tom’s find was an enchanting bonus discovery on a mission aimed at unravelling a totally unrelated mystery.

One Message in a Bottle Inspires Another

Kenton was inspired by the connection his teammate had so fortunately made through this storm-tossed message in a bottle, and sent his own.

“During our return trip from Nikumaroro Island to Nadi, Fiji,” He continued, “I launched two wine bottles with messages. We were aboard the MV Reef Endeavour near the Yasawa Islands off Vanua Levu Island.”

MV Reef Endeavor

The MV Reef Endeavor. Photo: Kenton Spading.

A Message in a Bottle Inspires A New Friendship

Kenton returned to the USA and Minnesota on July 11, and found this email waiting for him:


Warm greetings from the Fiji Islands! I was asked by my parents this morning to send you this email. My Dad saw your letter inside a bottle along the beach in our village in Navotua, Yasawa. The letter stated that we try contacting you upon receipt of the drifted bottle. We’d really love to hear from you.



Petero .jpg

Petero Nawaitauvou. Photo: Peter Nawaitauvou / Facebook.

So, Kenton wrote back, of course!


Bula! Hello from St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Venaka very much for your reply regarding my message in a bottle! How exciting to connect with you and your family! I am blessed that your father found my bottle and asked you to respond. Please thank him for me.

This was my second trip to Nikumaroro. I also spent a month in India in May-early June 2017. My business card (in the bottle) contains information on the passions I am involved with. I have a brother (in Texas) and a sister in Minnesota. My parents also live in MN. My cat’s name is Blackie.

I would like to know about you and your family. Anything you can share would be appreciated. I am attaching a picture of myself. Let me know if that arrives OK. I am the taller guy in the photo on the right. I have written a book about Amelia Earhart and I would like to send a copy to you and your father.


Kenton Spading, P.E.

And then Petero wrote back! And then Kenton! Then Petero! Then Kenton again!

These first emails kicked off a running exchange between Kenton and Petero that continues to this day. Petero went on to discuss his small village, and how his family runs a business making “organic virgin coconut oil and coconut soap as well as other coconut products” which they sell to tourists. Petero has even made a Facebook page for their company, Nawaitauvou Virgin Oil Company.

Petero's Coconut Soap

Some of Petero’s family’s soap. Photo: Nawaitauvou Virgin Oil Company / Facebook.

But the family has even bigger entrepreneurial plans. “The beach where my Dad found the bottle that had your letter,” Petero writes, “is in front of our small piece of land that we had borrowed from the village. We want to construct a few Bure’s (Fijian thatched house) and develop it into a homestay business.”

The Power of a Message in a Bottle

Kenton lives in Minnesota, and Petero lives in the Yasawa Island Group. The chances of them ever meeting, of them ever becoming friends would be precisely zero in a world without messages in bottles. But in a world with messages in bottles, they have been able to become friends. And you know what? I think that makes the world a better place. This is the magic of messages in bottles. I think every friendship, especially between different cultures, makes the world a better place.

It is so easy to think of people who live far away as people who don’t matter–at least not to you. But the truth–as messages in bottles so forcefully demonstrate–is that even the most distant person you’ve never met has a family and dreams and goals. Even the most far-flung stranger is made of the same stuff as you, as me. If we only had the chance to meet, like Kenton and Petero, I think we would see that we are not all that different.

The mystery of Amelia Earhart was not solved by either of these messages in bottles–but these stories are a reminder that, sometimes, even if you think you know what you are looking for, what you really needed may just fall into your life, out of the clear blue ocean.

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