Lonely Planet Writer

Impossible destinations: Amelia Earhart’s final destination

It’s interesting that Amelia Earhart’s final destination – or intended one – is virtually impossible to visit seven decades later. In 1937, the aviator was bound for Howland Island on the second-to-last leg of her landmark global flight. She never made it.

Today Howland Island is an uninhabited, bean-shaped, flat, arid 648-acre island midway between Hawaii and Samoa. Run by the US Wildlife Refuge System, Howland Island is only visited every other year by a few scientists who go to count sea birds, check on vegetation and move on after two days. You have to be qualified, and very lucky, to ever get the chance.

Honolulu-based Beth Flint, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for the US Wildlife Refuge System, has been seven times. She says it has a remarkable feeling to visit. ‘I’ve never felt so far from the rest of humanity. It’s nice to think there’s still places that are this wild,’ she said by phone. ‘And it IS really wild.’

Howland IslandA hermit crab, one of the few residents of Howland Island. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

The only way to reach it is by boat from Honolulu, an eight-day trip one way. Once on the island, scientists can only use unused gear, including clothing, that’s frozen on the way to ensure no bacteria is introduced to the fragile ecosystem. The next trip is planned for February 2012.

A web cam could be installed there for 'virtual visits,' but actual tourism there is doubtful. For starters, passing the coral reefs to find a landing spot is, Flint puts it, a ‘hair-raising experience.’

She adds, ‘It’s an incredibly vulnerable to the introduction of alien species.’ In fact, the island was infested with rats a century ago, which led to the introduction of cats in 1937 – just before Earhart was due to land – which then led to an infestation of feral cats (finally removed in the ‘80s).

The island – named for the seafaring descendants of John Howland, a Mayflower pilgrim who actually toppled overboard from the ship in 1620 and survived – fell under the sovereignty of the US because of all the bird feces. Really. In 1856, the US passed the (hilarious) Guano Islands Act, which allowed US citizens to possess any ‘guano island’ if unclaimed, as long as they’d ship out lucrative guano. Eventually over 100 islands were claimed by the act.

Decades later it became a target of war. A day after bombing Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese air force attacked tiny Howland Island three times – there was an air runway, and a few scientists were living on the island (two died). ‘You can still see damage from the attack,’ Flint says. ‘Every once in a while walking around the island, you’ll pass these huge crater holes from the bombs.’

Some fragments of the old settlements remain on the bush-filled island, but the only standing structure is the so-called Earhart Lighthouse, a damaged ‘day beacon’ which has a little plaque.

Even if it will be a no-go zone for us un-scientific folk, Howland Island will always resonate as the place Earhart missed. After leaving Lae, Papa New Guinea, on July 2, 1937, her plane disappeared – some say within 100 miles of Howland.

‘Sometimes I think about her when I’m on the island,’ Flint says. ‘And how nice it would have been if she had made it.’

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