(Recasts with departure of research ship)

By Malia Mattoch McManus

HONOLULU, July 3 (Reuters) - Researchers seeking to chronicle Amelia Earhart's fate 75 years after she vanished over the Pacific set off from Hawaii on a $2 million expedition on Tuesday to look for wreckage of her plane near a remote island where they believe the U.S. aviator died a castaway.

Researchers will travel 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometres) by ship from Honolulu to Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati, where they believe Earhart's Lockheed Electra may rest in waters offshore from where they suspect she survived for weeks or months in 1937.

Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), theorizes Earhart's plane was washed off the reef by surf days after Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed on Nikumaroro, about 400 miles (644 km) southeast of their Howland Island destination.

The duo had departed Papua New Guinea July 2 in Earhart's quest to circumnavigate the globe along an equatorial route. Gillespie said circumstantial evidence collected on previous trips to Nikumaroro makes a strong case for his theory that Earhart ended her days as a castaway, ultimately perishing in the island's harsh conditions.

Discovered items include what appears to be jar of a once-popular brand of anti-freckle cream from the 1930s, a clothing zipper from the same decade, a bone-handled pocket knife of the type Earhart carried, and piles of fish and bird bones indicative of a Westerner trying to survive.

"We have hints as to how long she did survive," Gillespie said. "Based on the amount of bones, she survived a number of weeks, maybe months. This is a whole chapter in Amelia Earhart's life that no one ever knew. It's heroic stuff."

The state of the discovered fish bones found by what Gillespie believes was Earhart's campsite leads him to believe they were consumed by a Westerner.

"Pacific Islanders usually eat the head of the fish. That's often what they think is the best part. This person isn't eating them," he said.

"We found giant clamshells ... A Pacific Islander will catch them while open and cut them out. There were several up at the campsite bashed in," he added, saying others were laid up concave as if to catch rainwater.

"We've found bottles standing in what was a campfire, with the bottoms melted but the top not heat-damaged, and pieces of wire fashioned into a loop. It looks like someone was boiling water to make it safe to drink."


SKELETAL REMAINS

Researchers have also found bone fragments Gillespie said were too compromised to provide DNA for testing. Gillespie believes a partial skeleton found by a British officer in 1940 may have been Earhart's. The skeleton was taken to Fiji.

A doctor there concluded it belonged to a man, but Gillespie said a reexamination of the recorded bone dimensions indicate the remains were of a Caucasian female. Found along with the skeleton were a man's and woman's shoe, and a sextant box.

What happened to the bones remains a mystery. Gillespie traveled with his group to Fiji last summer to try to find them based on old records. He said they did find a box of bones, but that testing showed they belonged to a Polynesian female.

Such disappointments have happened before in the 24 years Gillespie has been looking for the answer to Earhart's final chapter. At one point TIGHAR believed it had found a navigator's book case from her plane. Another time they thought they would find her plane in the lagoon. Both leads proved false.

Gillespie says there's been no evidence of the fate of Earhart's navigator, Fred Noonan. "We don't know much about Fred. The partial skeleton found in 1940 was that of a woman who had died by the campsite."

He theorized that even if Earhart was catching fish and birds she could have starved to death, or faced other risks.

"You can be getting food, but you don't have enough calories to replace the calories you're expending catching it. The reef is slippery and if you get cut it will become infected immediately and can lead to blood poisoning. Or there could have been injuries from the landing or crash."

In his previous nine trips there, Gillespie has experienced firsthand how hard surviving there would be.

"The island is four degrees south of the Equator. The sun is a hammer. There is no fresh water. When you get ashore you have to cut a trail through the jungle to the lagoon side. There are black tip sharks all over the place."

Throughout the years of looking, Gillespie had always wondered how Earhart might have collected water, as the only containers they'd found were small cosmetic bottles.

"Then on last expedition there was a big rain and squall while we were working in the forest The Boca trees there had large leaves," he said, adding that rain could collect on leaves on the ground. "With a small bottle you could collect from trees and roots." (Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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  • Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan

  • Earhart

    FILE - In a March 10, 1937 file photo American aviatrix Amelia Earhart waves from the Electra before taking off from Los Angeles, Ca., on March 10, 1937. Earhart is flying to Oakland, Ca., where she and her crew will begin their round-the-world flight to Howland Island on March 18. (AP Photo, file)

  • Ric Gillespie, right, founder of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, watches equipment testing alongside Wolfgang Burnside from aboard a ship at port in Honolulu on Sunday, July 1, 2012. Gillespie is leading a month-long voyage to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

  • Wolfgang Burnside controls a remote-operated vehicle from the deck of a ship in Honolulu on Sunday, July 1, 2012. Cameras and lights on the vehicle will be used to search the ocean floor during a month-long voyage to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

  • University of Hawaii ship Kaimikai-O-Kanaloa is anchored at harbor in Honolulu on Sunday, July 1, 2012. The ship will be used for of a month-long voyage that begins Tuesday, July 3, 2012 to attempt to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

  • Earhart

    FILE - An undated file photo shows American aviatrix Amelia Earhart. A $2.2 million expedition is hoping to finally solve one of America's most enduring mysteries. What happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart when she went missing over the South Pacific 75 years ago? (AP Photo, File)

  • Evan Tanner, left, an assistant project manager for Phoenix International, watches as an autonomous underwater vehicle is tested in Honolulu on Sunday, July 1, 2012. The underwater mapping vehicle is part of a month-long voyage that begins Tuesday, July 3, 2012 to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

  • Crew members lift an autonomous underwater vehicle from a ship to dockside waters in Honolulu on Sunday, July 1, 2012. The unmanned mapping vehicle will be used as part of a month-long voyage that begins Tuesday, July 11, 2012 to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

  • A statue of the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart greets passersby at the pedestrian mall in downtown Atchison, Kan. on Wednesday, March 21, 2012. A new theory has emerged based on a photo taken three months after she disappeared in an attempt to make a flight around the world in 1937. (AP Photo/The St. Joseph News-Press, Eric Keith )

  • This image provided by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and displayed at a U.S. State Department news conference on Tuesday, March 20, 2012, may provide a new clue in one of the 20th century's most enduring mysteries and could soon help uncover the fate of American aviator Amelia Earhart, who went missing without a trace over the South Pacific 75 years ago, investigators said. Enhanced analysis of a photograph taken just months after Earhart's Lockheed Electra plane vanished shows what experts think may be the landing gear of the aircraft, the small black object on the left side of the image, protruding from the waters off the remote island of Nikumaroro, in what is now the Pacific nation of Kiribati. Armed with that analysis by the State Department, historians, scientists and salvagers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, are returning to the island in July 2012 in the hope of finding the wreckage of Earhart's plane and perhaps even the remains of the pilot and her navigator Fred Noonan. (AP Photo/The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery)

  • Amelia Earhart

    FILE - In this undated photo, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by plane sits on top of a plane. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is wading into one of the 20th century┬'s most enduring mysteries: the fate of American aviator Amelia Earhart, disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago. Clinton is meeting March 20, 2012, with historians and scientists from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which will launch a new search in June for the wreckage of Earhart┬'s plane off the remote island of Nikumaroro. (AP Photo)