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BIG CATCH – Wednesday morning, January 19, 2000, I went fishing with my friend, Wes Johnson …

The Big Catch
January 19, 2000

BIG CATCH – Wednesday morning, January 19, 2000, I went fishing with my friend, Wes Johnson. Wes was born in Ojai back in the Dinosaur Age. Wes is a visual artist, my good friend and local fishing guide. As a kid, I tagged along after my Grandpa Louie to fish in local farm ponds and on the Mississippi River. Grandpa Louie was my outdoorsman and fishing mentor. Grandpa passed last year. On the day of his service my family and I went fishing in his honor. I caught a white albino catfish. I was telling Wes how it had been a whole year since that day and the albino was my last catch. We continued to swap stories. At age fourteen I spent my accumulated allowance on a fishing boat off Lanai. I landed a 62#, snaggle toothed, Great Atlantic Barracuda, just inches short of the world record. I told Wes, “This lake doesn’t have any real fish. They are all stocked.” The pole was baited and held in my left hand. My line was cast into the water and I WAS WAITING FOR THE BIG ONE! It had been one full year and a couple hundred bucks later since that last catch. I had time to notice what a beautiful day it was. No sooner had I finished complaining (all in good fun) when I crouched down to look for a rock to hold my pole in the ground. The instant I put my hand on the first rock of choice, I mean the split second!!!, the pole in my left hand had a serious 2# trout tug. It was my first fish after quite a dry spell. I set the rock down and reeled in the fish. Wes said, “It’s about time.”

Something compelled my interest back to “the rock” I had used to prop my pole when I landed my fish. There was something about that rock. It had very interesting texture, proportions and protrusions. This stone-bone made me believe it was something fossilized, but what? The texture felt like bone. This stone like bone was dense and heavy. I walked over to Wes, dropped it into his hands and said “This is a dinosaur bone.” We agreed that this was not a piece that could have been replicated. It wasn’t something artificial. It was some (expletive) dinosaur bone. We started screaming that we were sure of it. I walked back to exactly where I had found the original piece and picked up two pieces with similar texture but different shapes. As I looked at the area with a more scrutinizing eye, it was noticeable that these “stones” were all around me. I saw the outline of many fossilized rocks and a distinct discoloring of the clay in the shape of a huge skeleton. I felt like I was in the belly of a dinosaur.

From the early 70′s when my family moved to LA, my mom took my brother and I to the Natural History Museum. We went often and I loved it. When I called her with this find, we decided the Natural History Museum was the place to have the specimen looked at by an expert. The next day, January 20, 2000, Larry Barnes, Chief of the Department of Paleontology, identified the three bones I had chosen to be very telling. He was able to tell from those three bones that it was a prehistoric find of two fossilized whales. They were excited. Two pieces were right whale mandibles. The third was a whale vertebra. The fossilized bones are approximately 25,000,000 years old. Larry Barnes has traveled the world to study numerous fossilized whale sites. These are the first, of their kind, in the world. He verified that I had been standing in what was the belly of a very old whale.

One irony in all of this find of bones is that I professionally play authentic Irish bones as one of my many musical percussive instruments. Bones are in the idiophone family and are objects that make sound only from themselves. I played bones, bodhran (pronounced bow-ron), the Irish drum, and spoons for the film soundtrack of “Titanic”. I’m a percussionist, a studio musician, ethnomusicologist and a music teacher. I’ve been playing “bones” for a very long time. I have developed a rare style and technique that allows me to change pitch while playing these bone idiophones. To listen to an example of this technique please visit my World-Beats website.

Another irony is that my dad is an orthopedic surgeon. Sometimes he would invite me into the operating room. I remember being fascinated by all those bones. More bones and blood than I had ever seen.

January 31, 2000, the team of experts from the museum came to Ojai to verify my find. I showed them my discovery. Howell Thomas, paleontological preparator from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, and his assistants Nancy and Laureano, searched the area with their well-trained eyes. Howell identified a tooth found by Laureano and an ear bone found by Lori Asher, my friend. Indeed, they felt most of the whale skeleton was there. In addition, perhaps there was a cache of other fossils. Two months passed filled with many phone calls and personal meetings between myself, the Ojai Water District, and the L.A. History Museum. A temporary permit was obtained for Howell to exhume the skull on behalf of the museum for further verification. In the meantime, erosion and water levels continue to be of timely concern. April 15, 2000, Howell, Nancy, Eddie, my mom and I went to the site to cast the skull for exhumation for repository at the museum. On this trip Howell found an extremely rare fossilized brittle-star.

What to do next? I HAD CAUGHT THE BIG ONE! To quote Lewis M. Simons, an investigative reporter from the October, 2000 issue of National Geographic in regards to fossil finds, “Using what I’ve seen, heard, and read, fossil finds are rift with misguided secrecy and misplaced confidence, of rampant egos clashing, self-aggrandizement, wishful thinking, na├»ve assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulation, backbiting, lying, corruption, and most of all, abysmal communication.” Do we bury the whale to keep it safe and avoid the pitfalls? Can we find the funds to get it exhumed, reconstructed and housed for all to share? Research of previous significant fossil finds raised questions of legality of ownership, who pays for what to get it out, etc. Legal council suggested it would be a big snafu- local, state, federal versus personal discovery. Although the find is significant, it is not an LA Museum budget priority.

I read about the journey and eight-year battle over ownership of “Sue” the T Rex finally purchased by the Chicago Field Museum for seven million or so dollars. I followed the controversy of the fossilized lizard purchased at Sotheby’s auction by a private individual who in turn donated it to a museum. My resources to bring this wonderful fossil out of the ground or to guard it while in place compel me to implore the cooperation of the Ojai Water District and the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, and to any and all of you out there that would help me do the right thing with this whale. Rather than fight the system for a piece of the financial pie, I choose to donate my find and energies, to coordinate the exhumation and reconstruction of this prehistoric whale, and to build a learning center/museum to house it in the Ojai Valley.

My spirit requests donations and active backers to see this through. All donations are fully tax deductible. (Support Us) To the whales past and present!

All the best,

Aaron Plunkett

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