Issue: May 2004
A Whale of a Find

Hurricane Isabel uncovers another piece of Chesapeake Bay history.

 

     Less than a week after Hurricane Isabel, amateur fossil hunter Jeff DiMeglio and his girlfriend Sarah Gulick set out for a nice day of cliff-combing at Calvert Cliffs. From their small boat, DiMeglio noticed a strange protrusion coming from the clay layers of the cliffs. Most people would have passed it by, thinking it was a piece of driftwood, but not DiMeglio. He took a closer look and concluded that it was the jawbone of a whale-a rare find on the Bay.

     DiMeglio alerted the nearby Calvert Marine Museum. And, as soon as he and the Museum’s curator of paleontology, Dr. Stephen Godfrey, got permission from the landowners, they set out to have another look. DiMeglio was correct; he had found the skull of an 8-million-year-old baleen whale-”the most complete skull ever found in the St. Mary’s foundation,” according to Godfrey. The fossil, he says, includes both lower jaws intact, fused neck vertebrae, ribs and a scapula.

     To rescue the fossilized skull from the cliff, Godfrey contacted the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station in hopes that they would airlift the fossil from the cliffside to the museum grounds. Pax officials agreed, figuring it would be a great exercise for their search-and-rescue team.

     To prepare the fossil for transport, Godfrey’s team created a cast by wrapping layers of burlap fabric soaked in plaster of Paris around the skull and six splints made of 2 by 4s. The cast ensured that the skull would not flex or crack under its own weight during transport. Once the cast was ready, naval officers and museum staff fitted the fossil with a nylon strap sling. When the helicopter arrived on the scene, it maneuvered into place 120 feet above the skull and Robert Mirabal, SAR swimmer, rappelled from the helicopter down to the fossil. He attached a rope to the sling and after a quick strength test, the helicopter was off to the Calvert Marine Museum with its prize.

     Since the excavation of the skull, Godfrey and the museum’s other paleontologists have removed the cast and continue to clean and remove more sediment from the skull. The fossil is currently on display at the Calvert Marine Museum along with information about the Miocene Epoch (when this whale lived) and the whale itself. For more information call the museum at 410-326-2043.