Allison Fundis is America's best hope for protecting our oceans
The master troubleshooter, marine explorer, and feminist icon is mapping the ocean floor.
In 1937, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Western Pacific. In 2019, Allison Fundis, 38, went to go find her.
As the story goes, aviator Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying around the world. If the duo made the loop, Earhart would have become the first woman to circumvent the globe. But something went wrong: Earhart transmitted her last communication at 8:43 a.m. on July 2, 1937, while flying near Howland island. The plane, and fliers, disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again.
For the past 80 years, explorers and scientists have traversed the globe, testing theories and exhausting countless leads to find Earhart, Noonan, and the plane.
"Where is Amelia?
This year, two of the top marine explorers made another search attempt: Allison Fundis, chief operating officer of the Ocean Exploration Trust, a research nonprofit conducting deep-sea exploration, and Bob Ballard, president of the same organization, who famously discovered the Titanic shipwreck in 1985. Both Fundis and Ballard brought the latest technology to a perplexing mystery: Where is Amelia?
Armed with high-definition underwater cameras, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that roam the sea floor, drones, and sonar technology, Fundis and Ballard searched for Earhart’s plane on the remote island of Nikumaroro.
The expedition, chronicled in the National Geographic documentary Expedition Amelia, which airs Sunday, October 20, took three weeks, a very big boat, and a team of scuba divers, Earhart experts, scientists, and technicians.
“Just being able to be a very small piece of telling the story about the search for Amelia was thrilling,” Allison Fundis tells Inverse. “She was just a pioneer, a barrier breaker, and definitely an inspiring role model for women in particular, and explorers.”
Like Earhart, Fundis has defied gender norms in the male-dominated field of marine exploration. She’s risen to the top and brought other women and young explorers along. At any given time, 40-60 percent of the Nautilus crew is female, and the Nautilus internship program is inspiring a whole new generation of marine explorers.
The Amelia Earhart conspiracy theories are extensive. Some theorists say Earhart and Noonan were taken hostage by Japanese military or ended up on the Marshall Islands. Others say Earhart was secretly working for a United States intelligence agency and eventually moved undercover to live out her life as a housewife in New Jersey. Most experts simply believe the pair crashed into the ocean and drowned.
One popular theory, revived by a mysterious photograph and evidence collected by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), spells out a different ending for Earhart. On one of the last legs of their trip, Earhart and Noonan supposedly ran out of fuel or failed to locate a stop on their route. Instead of stopping on Howland Island as they planned, they crash-landed on Nikumaroro, a tiny coral island in the middle of the western Pacific ocean.
They landed the plane on the coral reef surrounding the atoll during an especially low tide. A few days later, the water rose higher, washing the plane off the reef and out to sea, where it sank to the ocean floor. Earhart and Noonan supposedly perished as castaways. After their fatal crash, the theory goes that coconut crabs ate their bodies and scattered the bones.
This is where Fundis and Ballard centered their search. They combed the area circling the island and brought together the world’s leading historians, explorers, and technicians.
The expedition didn’t go as planned; they didn’t find the plane. But they did map the island and its surrounding terrain, filling in critical gaps in marine knowledge in the Western Pacific.
Fundis is proud of her team’s work in Nikumaroro and already has her sights on upcoming expeditions. She hopes to travel further underwater than marine explorers before her, with Earhart’s enduring legacy spurring her on.
Into the deep
Allison Fundis has spent her life picking up where Earhart left off, venturing where no one has gone before — not up in the sky, but deep underwater.
She didn’t grow up near the ocean, but down South, in Nashville, Tennessee. As a freshman in high school, Fundis went scuba diving off the Gulf of Mexico with a group of other teenagers. Their guide? A former navy seal.
"Fundis doesn’t run from the unknown, but towards it.
He just had this “no fear” mentality, Fundis recalls, forcing the group to jump into jellyfish-filled waters wearing short wetsuits. That fearless mentality stayed with Fundis and has made her an intrepid explorer.
“My reaction has always been, like, if I’m challenged by something, then it gives me more drive to push towards it,” Fundis explains.
“I see something that looks like it would be fun to do, like operating a crane that will launch the underwater vehicles, and I want to learn how to do that. So then I do it. It’s really just taking the bull by the horns and running with it.”
Life at sea
Fundis spends much of her life near, or under water. She leads expeditions aboard the 217-foot ship E/V Nautilus, across the Pacific, Mediterranean, Gulf of California, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean sea.
Life on the Nautilus isn’t glamorous; it’s a stark contrast to Rose’s fictional Titanic experience (before the iceberg). To maximize cost efficiency during the expedition, crew members work constantly, gathering data, capturing underwater footage, and charting the seas and sea floor.
“It’s probably not as romantic as a lot of people might think,” Fundis says, laughing. It’s a comfortable ship, Fundis explains, but it’s very hard work.
“You’re working around the clock, seven days a week, often running on three or four hours of sleep tops at any given time,” she says.
But the rewards are more than worth it. Fundis has seen places few human eyes ever have.
“It can be really emotional,” she says. “I’ve definitely shed tears at moments just being overwhelmed with that idea.”
Fundis’ experience may seem unrelatable to people living far from the coast, but part of the Ocean Exploration Trust’s mission is transmitting these majestic experiences to people everywhere, no matter if they’re in Canada, Paraguay, or Pakistan.
“Part of what excites me most about what we do now is that we stream everything that we do live, and it is imperative that we bring it to more and more people, not just the people who are fortunate to be on the ship and involved in the research,” she says.
Mapping the great unknown
What both excites, and concerns, Fundis most: how much we don’t know about the ocean.
"We have better maps of Mars than we do our own sea floor.
“There’s so much that we have left to discover about our own planet, and that’s critical for making informed policy and management decisions,” she says.
With staggering plastic pollution, warming tides, and heightened unpredictability of hurricanes, the ocean is in a perilous state of flux. And contrary to some public opinion, our oceans aren’t too big to fail.
Exploring, and understanding, the unknown parts of our oceans is critical for protecting them, a goal which could help preserve the source of over half the world’s clean air, the home of countless marine organisms, the livelihood of coastal communities, much of the world’s mineral and economic resources, and major nutrient-rich food sources.
“We know quite a bit about impacts that we have easy access to,” Fundis explains, referencing the Great Barrier Reef as an example. “But what we don’t have great data on is what’s happening in the deeper environments.”
In fact, over 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and unmapped, according to the United States National Ocean Service (NOAA). Fundis is contributing to Seabed 2030, which aims to map the entire sea floor in high resolution by the year 2030.
Deep water, dark and mysterious, may contain critical information that could help humans better curb planetary change. But we’ll never know if we don’t go there. Fundis will go first, facing fear, and sharing her discoveries with the world.
Allison Fundis is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.
You can follow Allison Fundis’ adventures here and tune into Expedition Amelia this Sunday at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.