To a casual observer the small, rounded piece of material protruding from the marl cliffs along the Potomac River might have looked like weathered wood. But to my friend Steve Young and me, both amateur paleontologists, it held the promise of something special.
For about 20 years, Steve and I had been scouring these Virginia cliffs on weekends for petrified remains of sea creatures 16 million to 20 million years old. Mostly we found fragments. But this one might be different.
We got down on our knees to examine our find more closely. Something about the brownish bone struck me as familiar. Memories of college anatomy class led me to think that just maybe we had discovered part of the buried skull of an ancient whale. The prospect excited us.
“What do we do now?” Steve asked. “If this is what we think it is, it goes back five or six feet into the cliff.”
The afternoon of this bitterly cold January day in 1989 was wearing away. The tide was coming in, and we were already ankle-deep in frigid water. Warmth and a hot drink beckoned at home.
But we’d never found a complete anything in the cliffs before, and there was only one way to find out whether the whole skull was there. Clutching my knife, I began digging into the cliff face. As I chiseled away, the image of another fossil danced inside my head.
It was before Christmas of 1963. I was ten years old and living in Okinawa, where my father was stationed in the Foreign Service. I was rummaging for the Christmas ornaments with my grandmother. We came upon an old wooden box, filled not with decorations but with rocks. Not ordinary rocks, mind you, but polished slabs of multicolored agate, rough geodes with magical caves inside, and arrowheads carved of quartz and flint.
Near the bottom was an oblong, flattish, regular-looking stone. Turning it over, I discovered it was the most magical item of the lot. Etched on the underside in minute perfection was a fern frond. The delicate leaf looked so real it might have been picked in the garden that day and pasted on. I was enthralled.
“Do you know what this is?” Grandma asked, taking the stone in her hand. I shook my head. With one eyebrow arched quizzically, she explained, “This is a fossil. Many years ago—”
“Before you were born?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, laughing, “even before I was born, this fern fell into soft mud by a pond or lake. Silt covered it and hardened. When I found it millions of years later on the bank of the Mississippi River, it looked like a plain rock. But I knew that sometimes wondrous things can be hidden inside a stone. So I took a hammer and split it lengthwise, and I found this fern.”
Then she handed the fossil to me. “You may have it,” she said.
I was hooked. I began scouring Okinawa’s seaside cliffs for sharks’ teeth, rare shells and fossil sea urchins. Grandma had opened a new world to me—the world of the distant past, right there under my feet.
A few years later I devoured books by and about Roy Chapman Andrews, the great fossil hunter. I sometimes fancied myself wearing Andrews’s broad-brimmed hat, surveying the fossil-rich cliffs of the Gobi Desert, as I’d seen it in an old photograph. Above all, I dreamed of one day making a discovery worthy of an exhibit in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, where many of Andrews’s finds are on display.
As Steve and I uncovered more of the bone, my initial assessment seemed right: we were looking at the cheekbone of what might be a very large prehistoric whale skull, with its snout pointed diagonally into the cliff. Extracting it would be a massive job. With daylight fading, we did a sketch of what we had and marked its location on a map. We’d inform Frank Whitmore about this.
A paleontologist and research associate with the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., Frank Whitmore probably knows more about fossil marine mammals of the East Coast than any other man alive. Steve and I had come to know him as a patient guide in the ways of fossil digging.
“Hi, guys,” Frank greeted us jovially when we went to see him a few days later. “What’ve you got?”
He examined closely the dog-eared bit of note paper I handed him. Another paleontologist, Dave Bohaska, glanced over his shoulder doubtfully. Steve and I waited as tensely as defendants for a jury’s verdict. We knew these scientists were often visited by avid amateurs with tales of complete specimens that, upon investigation, didn’t pan out.
We, too, had experienced our share of false alarms, including a dig for what we thought was a fossil sea cow. When a Smithsonian anatomist, Daryl Domning, came with us to investigate, we found that we had been mistaken. We couldn’t afford to be wrong a second time.
“Well,” Frank announced at last, “it looks like a cetothere all right. I think you two should take Dave here down this weekend and show him what you found.”
The following Saturday, after getting permission from the landowner, we drove to the site. We had assembled a team of seven to do the digging. The wind along the cliffs was brutal.
We unloaded sacks of plaster and gauze wrappings for making a cast to protect the delicate bone once it was exposed. Digging barehanded on our hands and knees in freezing water would be heavy, filthy work. There was only room for two people to work on the specimen at a time, and the sand-like green marl was saturated with ice, giving it the weight and consistency of partially cured concrete.
Eventually we removed enough material to build a small dam to keep the water at bay. Now the experts could perform the delicate work of freeing the fossilized bone from the surrounding marl. We watched anxiously as Bohaska and Domning using knives and brushes, exposed the delicate bone along the direction we had sketched. They uncovered the oblong eight-inch eye sockets, then the thin-boned snout. We all waited eagerly for signs of the skull terminating.
Finally they had almost four feet of continuous bone. “Well,” Domning announced, rocking back on his heels, “I reckon we’ve got us a complete skull here!”
Steve and I were exhilarated. Had we been in less learned company, I would have let out a mighty “Yahoo!” The gods of fossil hunters everywhere were smiling. As if in celebration, two bald eagles wheeled out majestically above the cliffs and soared off over the water.
Two hours later we had the top and sides of the skull exposed and encased in plaster jackets. We wove driftwood into the plaster to give us handles for carrying it.
The day was growing dark and even more frigid as Domning and Bohaska dug farther to release the massive white oblong. Two of us braced our shoulders against it to prevent it from tumbling onto the diggers. Suddenly the whole mass shifted to one side, nearly pinning Domning’s arm. We wrestled the fossil to an upright position. Luckily it had not cracked.
By the time it had been jacketed in plaster, our five-foot-long find weighed about 500 pounds. It took all seven of us to hoist the block off the ground and stagger up the beach with it in shifts. Loading the stone into the back of my Jeep took our last ounce of energy.
I arrived home weary, chilled and covered with plaster. But as I looked into the back of the truck at our treasure bundled in burlap, my enthusiasm returned. I desperately wanted to see it all cleaned and mounted. I wanted to see it cracked open as Grandma had cracked open the fern. What did it look like under all the dull mud, plaster and rock? What had it looked like when it was alive eons ago?
Only Steve shared my excitement. My wife and parents were mildly intrigued. Kerry, my 12-year-old daughter, said simply, “What—a whale?”
After a few days, I took the skull to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum lab. Over the following months, it would be cleaned and analyzed. Steve and I received a letter from Bohaska, thanking us for our help and acknowledging the discovery.
We later learned the skull was roughly 16 million years old. It was probably a parietobalaena, a primitive cousin of the modern blue whale, about 15 feet long—no behemoth, but it was ours.
Life in the workday world soon drove from my head most thoughts of the fossil. Five years passed, and I assumed our find had been put in some museum basement and forgotten. At least we had our letter.
Then one day I learned that the American Museum of Natural History in New York needed a Miocene baleen skull for an exhibit. Ours had been selected. I was speechless. “Awesome!” my daughter announced.
Kerry and I strode up the museum’s broad granite steps one brilliant day last summer. I was nervous going in. Here we were, entering the institution that had fostered Roy Chapman Andrews’s legendary exploits, to view what was in part my contribution to his remarkable legacy.
We passed through a menagerie of extinct mammal skeletons—mammoths, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers. Then in a high-ceilinged room we found the sign we were seeking: “Whales, Dolphins and Their Relatives—Cetaceans.” Instantly, we spotted our prize, gleaming rich, glossy amber brown inside its protective glass case. Just like the museum fossils that held me spellbound as a child—and just like that very first fern of my grandmother’s so many years before.
With all the heavy marl removed, the exhibit looked magnificent. An inscription under it proclaimed “Parietobalaena palmeri” and noted that it had been collected by the United States National Museum Crew, Westmoreland, Virginia, in 1989. And there was my name.
We had split the stone, and the precious fern had been revealed. We’d rummaged through the earth’s box of ancient treasures out of sheer, undaunted curiosity. I could almost feel my grandmother there, nudging me with satisfaction and pride, one eyebrow arched high on her forehead.
Then I caught the rapt expression on my daughter’s face reflected in the glass case. Her mouth formed the circle of a silent “Wow!” In her eye was the same gleam that had been in mine 30 years before.
When we got home, I presented her with the fern—and instructions to display the stone upside down. That way, only those with faith and curiosity would find the marvel that it held concealed.