June 24, 2013 -- A New Zealand museum has discovered lost photos of the island where some believe Amelia Earhart sought shelter after her aircraft crashed in the South Pacific in 1937.
Matthew O'Sullivan, keeper of photographs at the New Zealand Air Force Museum, found the lost photos earlier this month, Richard Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, confirmed to ABC News.
"I got an email from Matt saying that he had found in his archive a tin box that had no label in it. His archive records said the box contained photos of an unknown island," Gillespie said.
"So Matt gets curious, he opens the box and he finds contact prints and a slip of paper that read 'Gardner Island,'" Gillespie said.
Gardner Island is the name of the island where some Earhart investigators believe the famed aviator spent her final days after her aircraft crashed in the South Pacific 76 years ago. It is now called Nikumaroro island.
O'Sullivan compared the photographs to modern-day images of Nikumaroro Island from Google Earth to confirm they were of the same island, according to Gillespie.
In his email to Gillespie, O'Sullivan asked if he could identify when the photos were taken.
"I looked at the photos of contact sheets Matt sent me, and I immediately recognized the two ships you can see in the photographs off the coast of the island. The two ships were part of a New Zealand Pacific Airway Survey that was conducted in 1938. The photos were taken on Dec. 1, 1938, 15 months after Amelia Earhart disappeared," Gillespie said.
Gillespie already had copies of two of the photos taken during the 1938 expedition and always wondered if there were more.
"It didn't make sense that the expedition would only have taken two photos. It always puzzled me, and the photos I had weren't even the originals. They were copies of photographs that had been included in past reports," he said.
For Gillespie, the finding is especially exciting because the set of 43 photos are all originals and come with 5-inch negatives.
"You lose something every time you duplicate a photograph," said Gillespie. "Having the originals means we'll be able to see a lot of things we otherwise would have lost."
One of the things Gillespie is eager to see are footprints that can apparently be seen on a part of the island where a castaway's body was found.
"It's possible that these footprints belonged to someone on the island before 1938. Keep in mind that this island was completely uninhabited before the New Zealand expedition visited in 1938. It is possible that these footprints belonged to someone on the island before 1938," Gillespie explained.
That someone could have been Amelia Earhart. But Gillespie is not making any assumptions.
"It's a little dangerous to get too excited. We don't know what we're going to find," he said. "But now that we have the original 5-inch negatives we can confirm or deny this report."
Gillespie and his forensic analysis team are traveling to New Zealand on July 10 to investigate the photographs.
He is confident he will be able to use the photos to reconstruct what the island might have looked like during Earhart's time.
"When I'm looking at the photos, I'm looking at a place I know intimately. I've led 10 expeditions to this place. I know it better than my own backyard. If we find something in the photos that is different or out of place, I will know," he said.
A request for comment to the New Zealand Air Force Museum was not immediately returned. Matthew O'Sullivan, who lives in Christchurch, could not be immediately reached.