Deep Sea Vision last month said its recent sonar scans might show Amelia Earhart's long-lost plane.
Nauticos, a competing ocean-tech company, argues DSV's scans probably don't show the mysterious wreck.
Both companies have invested millions in the hunt for Earhart's wreckage and continue the search.
The race is on to find the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's ill-fated final flight.
The search has lured deep-pocketed American investors as they attempt to solidify their legacy by solving one of the world's most persistent mysteries.
Last month, Deep Sea Vision, a South Carolina marine-robotics company created by Tony Romeo, a pilot who was a US Air Force intelligence officer, captured an image using sonar from a high-tech unmanned submersible that he believes reveals the crash site of Earhart's distinctive plane.
Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were attempting to fly around the world in 1937 when the pair went missing somewhere over the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island, a small unincorporated territory of the US about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Both were declared dead by 1939. Still, their unsolved disappearance at the height of Earhart's fame has prompted decades of conspiracy theories about what happened to the iconic pilot and her flying companion.
Romeo says he may have solved the mystery with his sonar scans. But he's not the only one searching.
"The next step is confirmation; we've got to go back out with different sorts of sensors and really photograph it well and take a look at how the artifact is sitting on the seabed," Romeo, who has invested $11 million in the project and created Deep Sea Vision to help fund the search, told Business Insider.
He added: "Once that step is done, lots of people will be involved. The Smithsonian, the family, there'll be some investors involved because it'll be an expensive operation. But then we're thinking: 'How do we lift the plane? How do we salvage it?'"
Nauticos, a competing ocean-tech company known for its participation in discovering the site of the sunken I-52, a World War II deep-water Japanese submarine, has spent decades hunting for Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10E. The company, having conducted similar searches of the ocean floor that span an area roughly the size of Connecticut, has cast doubt on Romeo's claims.
"Yes, the sonar target appears to have a fuselage, wings, and a tail, but…it appears to have swept wings, the relative dimensions do not match the Electra, and there is a lack of engine nacelles," read a statement released by Nauticos in response to Romeo's recent findings. "Those characteristics are not consistent with a Lockheed Electra 10E."
While Nauticos said any objects resembling aircraft in the vicinity of Howland Island have the potential to be Earhart's Electra and should be positively identified, previous discoveries in the area that were believed to be connected to Earhart's disappearance have turned out to be as innocuous as coils of cable on the sea floor.
Jeff Morris, the project manager behind Nauticos' Amelia Earhart Project, told BI he remains "highly skeptical" that Romeo's target could be the real crash site, largely due to its location.
A re-created radio system
Since Nauticos began its search efforts in 2001, the company had been slowly locating and purchasing the components to re-create Earhart's entire radio system, finally getting a big break in 2018 when a key component — the Western Electric 13C transmitter — was found at a swap meet.
"As far as anybody else knows, there is no other unit in the world that still exists," Morris said.
The company was able to re-create Earheart's radio, which Morris said was key to analyzing the strength and distance of her final radio signals and triangulating where she could have possibly crashed. Through their analysis, Nauticos found there was little chance for Earhart to have transmitted her final signals from the area Romeo says could be the wreckage site.
Nauticos said studies related to fuel endurance indicated Earhart likely ran out of fuel about an hour after she reportedly radioed that she had "half-hour fuel remaining," hoping the nearby Coast Guard would pick up her transmission.
The company said its radio testing and analysis determined that Earhart, possibly due to inclement weather conditions, was likely just outside the visible range of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was anchored at Howland Island, given that her radio signal could be received. Still, no one on board reported seeing her unique Lockheed Electra in the air.
Deep Sea Vision's target, Nauticos said, is significantly west of Howland Island. The company added that it was unlikely Earhart crashed there because she wouldn't have been able to travel so far in that direction with the little fuel she had while still having her radio signals received on land.
Not quite a partnership but a shared mission
While there has been talk of combining resources to find the wreckage, neither company has agreed to form a partnership. Morris said Romeo reached out to Nauticos when conducting his recent 100-day voyage to examine the sea floor around Howland Island, offering to conduct scans of any areas of interest where Nauticos believed the wreck could be.
"He literally called us while he was out there and said, 'Hey, you guys got any areas you want us to search in?'" Morris said. "And we said we do, but we'd need a contract between the two organizations because we have way too much intellectual property here to protect. And he said, 'Well, you know, I'm not ready to do that yet.'"
A representative for Deep Sea Vision told BI that Romeo and David Jourdan, the president of Nauticos, "have been in regular communications throughout DSV's effort" to find Earhart's wreckage but didn't respond to specific questions regarding any potential collaboration between the two companies.
Each expedition to search for Earhart's wreckage costs a small fortune in equipment fees and hiring a crew of expert navigators, engineers, and sonar operators to conduct the operations.
Romeo, a former real-estate investor, sold commercial properties to raise the $11 million needed to begin funding the search, which included the purchase of a $9 million high-tech unmanned submersible "Hugin" manufactured by a Norwegian company, Kongsberg. Deep Sea Vision now leases its equipment to other ocean explorers to continue funding its mission.
Nauticos started as a for-profit company. Morris said the company spent roughly $13 million on its initial voyages searching for Earhart, adding: "We're not talking about buying equipment money; we're talking about the cost of actual operations."
The company has since created a nonprofit wing to collect donations and promote the educational benefits of uncovering Earhart's plane, which Morris said could contain human remains and salvageable documents that would provide key insight into the crash.
"This has all been funded along the way mostly by individual investors who really are looking for a legacy project," Morris said. "This isn't the kind of thing you make money on, with the costs involved and the waiting."
For now, Nauticos is preparing to launch a new round of fundraising to begin a fourth voyage to search the location it says could be Earhart's final resting place — and if Romeo and Deep Sea Vision find the wreckage at the location they're currently targeting, Morris said, "we would have never searched there, so good on Tony."
Morris declined to specify the locations that Nauticos plans to search in its next expedition out of caution that hobbyists or another company, such as Deep Sea Vision, might get there first and lay a salvage claim on the wreckage. In maritime law, anyone who aids in the recovery of a ship or cargo that has been lost at sea is entitled to a reward proportionate to the value of the property they retrieved.
"We were just, with the results of our radio testing, getting ready to start looking for funding for another expedition, and then Tony came along, so we kind of put everything on hold," Morris said. "We didn't want to come out with stuff just before he came out, so we said, 'All right, we will sit back. You'll get your day in the sun.'"
While the two companies compete for the glory of finding Earhart's long-lost plane, the one thing they agree upon is that should the aircraft be found, it belongs in a museum.
"We want the world to be able to see it," Morris said.
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