BIG CATCH – Wednesday morning, January 19, 2000, I went fishing with my friend, Wes Johnson …
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, naïve 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,
The first Chumash people were created on Santa Cruz Island. They were made from the seeds of a magic plant by the Earth Goddess, Hutash.
Hutash was married to Sky Snake, the Milky Way. He could make lightening bolts with his tongue. One day, he decided to make a gift to the Chumash people. He sent down a bolt of lightening and started a fire. After this, people kept fires burning so that they could keep warm and also cook their food.
In those days, the Condor was a white bird. However, the Condor was very curious about the fire he saw burning in the Chumash Village below, and he wanted to find out what it was. So, he flew very low over the fire to get a better look, but he flew too close . . . he got his feathers scorched and they turned black. So now the Condor is a black bird with only a little white feathers under the wings where they didn’t get burned.
After Sky Snake gave the Chumash people fire, they lived much more comfortably. More people were born each year, and their villages got bigger. Santa Cruz Island became crowded. The noise the people made was starting to annoy Hutash because it kept her awake at night. She decided some of the Chumash people would have to move off the island. They would have to go to the mainland, where there weren’t any people.
But how were the people going to get across the water to the mainland? After much thought, Hutash came up with the idea of making a bridge out of a rainbow. She made a very long, very high rainbow, which stretched from the tallest mountain on Santa Cruz Island all the way to the tall mountains near Carpinteria.
Hutash told the people to go across the Rainbow Bridge, and fill the whole world with people. The Chumash people started to go across the bridge. Some of them got across safely, but some made the mistake of looking down. It was a long way down to the water, and the fog was swirling around. They got so dizzy that some of the people fell off the Rainbow Bridge, down through the fog into the ocean. Hutash felt very bad about this because she had told them to cross the bridge. She didn’t want them to drown. So, instead, she turned them into dolphins. So the Chumash always said that dolphins are their brothers.
Written by lineal descendant of Ojai’s Native Chief, the Honorable Vincent Tumamait.
Here are just a few important things that Chumash people did with whales. First of all, Whale, in the Barbareno dialect of the Chumash language is “Pahat”. Whales were not fished for, they would be found onshore.
It was said that long ago, when animals were people, there were three worlds, the upper, middle and lower, each one on top of the other. The three worlds existed simultaneously and parallel to each other. The upper world was held up by an eagle, and the middle world was held up from the lower world by two giant snakes. In the upper world, the sky people would play a gambling game called “peon”. Sun and sky coyote would wager all kinds of things. One would wager human lives and droughts while the other would wager lots of rain and abundance for us. This game was played nightly, and at the end of the year the score was tallied up. When Sun won the game, we suffered no rain, the plants stopped growing and the animals moved to higher ground. The people along the coast ran out of food during these times so they would pray and ask for mercy.
Down below in the bottom of the ocean, the swordfish people, “`elyewun”, lived in a crystal house and would come out of their house to play a game. They would toss a whale back and forth off the end of their very long, harpoon-like bills. From time to time one of the swordfish would miss and the whale would be tossed onshore to the coastland in the middle world. This provided for the people and made them very, very happy so they sang and gave thanks for this wonderful gift.
Besides the meat that the whale provided for the people, they also used the fat to make oil and the skeleton to make structures. The rib bones were used for the beams in the making of the “Ap”, a semi-circular house. When long, straight poles were hard to find, ribs from a whale made sturdy braces and the jawbones of the very large whales were used for doorways.
The backbones made fine stools. During celebrations these stools were painted up and reserved for the most important guest. In the “tomal”, our planked canoe, the princess had her special whalebone stool. It was inlaid with one piece of abalone in the center and additional pieces circling around it. Then on the very edge of the whalebone, moon-shaped pieces of abalone were placed side by side all the way around the rim.
Whalebones were also used in burial ceremonies. The Chumash had a caste system and the very elite were buried in special ways. One particular burial was that of a woman who had the hip bone of a whale laid over her body. The grave was shallow, only a few feet deep, and when she was exhumed and the whale bone removed, underneath lie a layer of shell bead money covering her body.
It was important for Chumash people to have their “`atishwin”, spirit helper or dream helper. Soapstone was used to carve these helpers. Whale effigies have been found as well as soapstone carved ceremonial smoking pipes in the shapes of whales. During the “Hutash” ceremony in September, a whale vertebra is painted (Hutash means Mother Earth). In the middle of the whale vertebra is a purple sun disc made from prickly pear cactus juice mixed with pine pitch. Twelve rose-colored rays extend out from the purple sun, each ray representing the months of the year. The rays were split at the end and this was called, “tspy’ey kakunupmawa”, which means, “Flower of the Sun”. The whalebone was then placed in the middle of a room along with other offerings. People would gather around it singing songs and place more offerings in a basket. A boy would then place the whalebone on a stick, raise it high, and process around so that all the people could see it.
Help Stop the Navy’s Assault on Whales!
The U.S. Navy’s plan for testing and training with dangerous mid-frequency sonar and explosives could kill more than 1,000 marine mammals over the next five years. Tell the National Marine Fisheries Service to reject the Navy’s reckless plan and put safeguards in place that will protect marine animals without compromising military readiness.
Go to the NRDC campaign page to sign the petition.
Los Angeles Times
By Matt Surman, Gail Davis, Special to The Times
Lake Casitas Angler Landed Whale of a Find
Paleontology: Experts say the 25-million-year-old fossilized bones found in January are the first of their kind in California.
LAKE CASITAS—Aaron Plunkett went out for a January day of angling at Lake Casitas, and though it wasn’t a particularly good day for fish, the Ojai resident came home with a monumental catch: a 25-million-year-old whale.
It was a find—a few pieces of fossilized bones—that has the experts excited. They’re convinced that what Plunkett stumbled over is a first of its kind in California: a toothed baleen whale, representing a rare evolutionary link between whales as we know them, with their brushy, plankton-catching plates, and their ancient, toothy ancestors.
“He has in fact found a very important specimen,” said Larry Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
What Plunkett found is a whale dating from the earliest part of the Miocene Epoch, and one of the last of the toothed baleens to survive past the Oligocene Epoch. It’s a fossil that until now has mostly only been seen in such areas as the Pacific Northwest, Baja California and Japan.
For now, no one is exactly advertising the precise location of the bones at Lake Casitas, where they have remained in the same place since the whale died and was covered in ancient ocean sediment back when Ojai was under water.
Plunkett couldn’t be reached Thursday, and by all accounts is very protective of his fossil find. In a short, written statement, the self-professed musical anthropologist said he hoped to create an ambitious Ojai learning center to house the skeletal remains and offer “instruction, public performances, history through storytelling, promotion of anthropological art forms and the like.”
“I feel it appropriate for the whale to remain in the Ojai Valley,” Plunkett said in the statement.
That’s not likely to happen, said Howell Thomas, a paleontologist with the natural history museum. Thomas said he is hoping to dig up the entire skeleton later, once the museum is able to draw up a budget for digging and cleaning. If anything, the museum will provide a replica to Plunkett for his wished-for interpretive museum.
Doug Ralph, director of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, was willing to give some publicity to the find. But Ralph said he would like the excavation to occur quickly for fear scavengers might come back to search for the remaining 25 to 30 feet of whale body buried next to the lake. Legally, the recreation area owns the bones, but Ralph said he’ll leave the excavation up to the natural history museum.
“We’re looking at this as something out of the realm of what we can do, and [in the realm of] what the L.A. museum can do,” he said
But the marketing opportunities aren’t lost on him.
“Now, we can claim Casitas has a whale of a fish,” Ralph said.
Plunkett stumbled across the bones Jan. 19. Sensing they were important, he brought them to the attention of Thomas, who specializes in marine mammals. Thomas brought back parts of the skull, a tooth and some vertebrae to the museum.
Thomas said he and his crew also discovered the bodies of smaller whales and a starfish, all from the same period. Just a month ago the museum was alerted to another small whale of the same period in Matilija Canyon, just north of the Casitas site.
Experts on the toothed baleen whales say only now are discoveries of the whales picking up. Thirty years ago scientists didn’t know that evidence of an ancient baleen–the bristly filter that whales use to suck in small fish—could be found by looking for tell-tale grooves on fossilized palate bones.
“It sounds counterintuitive to have a baleen whale that has teeth,” said Hans Thewissen, a whale expert and anatomy teacher at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. “They were in the process of losing their teeth, and the baleen doesn’t fossilize.”
In the northwest United States, where many of North America’s whale fossils have been found, scientists have had a hard time studying them because they are often in hard rock. But some of that material is now being examined, according to Bruce Crowley, a paleontologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
But, paleontologists here say it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across such a find. It helped that Plunkett had an inkling of what he had found. “
“Ain’t nature grand?” asked Dave Whistler, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the natural history museum. “We know they’re out there falling out of rocks all the time. We’re dependent on the goodwill of the general public.”
With a little help from our friends, like you, we can give a lot of aid to living animals in our oceans. Give a little and we promise to do our best to help whales, dolphins and other species being challenged by us humans.
Give whatever amount you can comfortably manage: $5 or 5 thousand!
Los Angeles Times
By Christopher Reynolds
Sticking up for Louie and Wendell
Lake Casitas: Aaron Plunkett is so attached to the fossilized whale bones he found that he named them. It pains him to see them neglected.
No trout for me. No bass, no catfish, no crappie. I stand under cloudy skies on a sleepy weekday, dodging wasps and foraging through the brush at water’s edge, chasing something bigger. Something aged, secret and leviathan.
Aaron Plunkett is my guide. A 40-year-old musician who lives nearby and visits every week, he stands upslope, hollering directions. Between hollers, he rattles out rhythms on a hand-held percussion instrument made from the ribs of an Irish goat. Aaron, as shall soon become clear, is all about bones.
Once, this whole valley was ocean floor. Now Plunkett’s rib-clicks bounce amid the hills of greater Ojai, echoing like a caveman tap-dance. They stop when I near his secret spot.
“Right now, you’re on Louie and Wendell,” Plunkett hollers. “The mid-vertebra area. Come sit in the brain. Down here to the right.”
Louie and Wendell are whales — the fossilized skeletons of toothed baleen whales that lived 25 million years ago. They’re invisible, buried beneath bushes and dirt at this secret spot (the Lake Casitas shoreline measures 35 miles), but Plunkett is the guy who found them and covered them again to keep them safe. For four years, he says, he’s been trying to get more attention, or least more protection, for these fossils.
“I am the only steward who is actively paying attention to this area,” he says, frustration evident.
These whales might still be incognito if Plunkett hadn’t passed this way on a trout-fishing expedition one day in January 2000. He spotted something curious and called the experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Soon the experts were calling this the first find of its kind in California, a bridge between the Miocene and Oligocene epochs.
Larry Barnes, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, at the time described the discovery as “a very important specimen,” and museum paleontologist Howell Thomas said he hoped it could be excavated.
Four years later, the Los Angeles museum’s officials decline to say anything about Plunkett. A spokesman affirms that it has 50 pounds of fossils from this site, gathered in 2000, but reports no plans to excavate further.
Now, before we dig any deeper here, you need to know Plunkett’s qualifications as a bonesman. Formal scientific training: none. Zeal: considerable. He grew up the son of an orthopedic surgeon and a nurse, studied music at USC and CalArts, and on a trip to Ireland 20 years ago found himself drawn to the ancient Irish instrument known as “the bones.”
Hence the goat ribs in his hands. He makes his living as a studio percussionist — that’s him on the new John Fogerty album, “Déjà Vu All Over Again” — and as a music educator.
Jolted to enthusiasm by the discovery in 2000, he founded the Ojai Valley Whale Society, printed cards, T-shirts and brochures featuring epochal timelines, and imagined setting up a display in the Ojai Valley to honor native peoples, flora and fauna. He even named the whales — Wendell Plunkettsaurus and Louis Elasaurus — after his grandfathers, although scientists say the paleontological community is unlikely to follow his lead.
Others may see the Los Angeles museum’s inaction since 2000 as a reasonable response to curatorial priorities and budget realities, but Plunkett argues that it has shirked its responsibilities, perhaps because its scientists don’t want to share credit for the discovery. He also thinks the federal Bureau of Reclamation (which owns Lake Casitas) and the Casitas Municipal Water District (which operates it) should better protect the fossil site.
The water district’s park services manager, Brian Roney, says the agency has considered fencing off the area — but Plunkett, wary that fences beckon looters, has refused to give water officials the detailed directions that he’s given museum officials.
“He just feels frustrated that the rest of the world is not as enthusiastic as he is,” says UC Santa Barbara professor Andre Wyss, a vertebrate paleontologist who has visited the site at Plunkett’s invitation.
Like Plunkett, Wyss would like to see somebody with the right credentials do a little more digging. Both have been in touch with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History about the 2000 site and another set of bones nearby that Plunkett’s mother, Elizabeth, discovered last year. They seem to be about the same age, Wyss says, and they lie beneath a dirt path that’s well-trafficked by four-wheel-drive vehicles, like the roadkill time forgot.
“It’s the equivalent of seeing ‘Mona Lisa’ run over every day, if you love bones,” says Plunkett.
Paleontologists say their business goes this way sometimes. Treasures outnumber museums, says Karl Hutterer, executive director of the Santa Barbara museum, and it’s not uncommon to find a promising spot, put it on a to-do list, then hope the public doesn’t notice. But those operating procedures don’t always allow for the passion of an irrepressible bonesman.
“This is an evolutionary link to our existence,” says Plunkett. The lakeside situation now, he adds, is “disgraceful.”
It sure is strange, to stand on the spine of an ancient giant and know somebody’s Subaru may rumble across any time. And it will be a disgrace if somebody steals or damages these treasures despite what we now know. But there’s another, more elementary, possibility.
Rain. The next big bout of precipitation we get, the reservoir’s waters will creep over much of Plunkett’s find, maybe all of it. It’ll be freshwater instead of the salty sea of epochs past. But I do like the idea of those big beasts snug again under a liquid blanket.
Ventura County Star
Man finds remains of ancient mammal
LAKE CASITAS: Toothed whale fossil could help trace baleen evolution.
By Amy Bentley
Scientists might excavate the remains of a fossilized 25 million-year-old whale at Lake Casitas as they continue to study a discovery that they say is significant in tracing the evolutionary path of the toothed baleen whale.
Aaron Plunkett of Oak View made the discovery in January. Thinking he’d found something important, he contacted the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles and brought in pieces of the 25-foot-long whale skeleton. It was found in an undisclosed dry area at the lake on federal land.
Plunkett’s instincts were on target. “We said, ‘Hey that’s a primitive whale,’ ” said Howell Thomas, a paleontologist with the museum who specializes in marine mammals. He said Plunkett had discovered the only baleen whale tooth to be found in California. Others from the same time period have been found in Oregon, Washington and Baja California, and scientists had been eager to see what would turn up in California.
The tooth from the fossilized whale Plunkett found is different from other teeth of ancient baleen whales from the time period, Thomas said, leading to the possibility that the Lake Casitas whale fossil represents a newly discovered species, genus or family, Thomas said. The whale skeleton Plunkett found is likely a representative of whales from the time, which were in the process of losing their teeth.
Adding to the excitement of the whale find is the fact that a few vertebrae of other baleen whales from the same time period were found nearby, as well as a “brittle star,” a creature related to the starfish from the same period, Thomas said. Whales are about 50 million years old.
He said it would take two to four days for scientists to dig out all the rest of the fossil skeleton, a move the museum is considering. The museum already has the skull and a few vertebrae. If a scientific excavation is undertaken and enough pieces of the fossilized whale skeleton come out in good condition, the skeleton could be put on display at the museum, Thomas said.
It’s too early to tell if Plunkett’s desire for his find to be displayed in the Ojai area will be realized. Plunkett could not be reached Friday.
At Lake Casitas, meanwhile, Doug Ralph, the director of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, said the exact location of the fossil find will be kept quiet to prevent others from disturbing the area or taking any bones.
“The bones belong to the federal government and the people of the United States of America,” he said.
Ojai Valley News
by Bonnie MacNeill
Fossils found at lake are 25 million years old
Ethnomusicologist Aaron Plunkett has been seen around Ojai showing music students how to keep rhythms on a drum. In his spare time, he turns in his drumsticks for a fishing rod and earlier this year, the result was historic.
Plunkett was at Lake Casitas fishing Jan. 19 and playing his Irish “bones” to attract fish when he came across some whale bones that have been confirmed to date back 25 million years. “You can imagine my delight at discovering such an important pile of bones,” said Plunkett, a new Ojai resident. The fossil Plunkett discovered has been identified by the marine mammal lab at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles as a 25-million-year-old toothed baleen whale.
“It was a nice site and the fossil has been collected,” said Hal Thomas, senior paleontologist preparator for the museum. Other fossils at the site have been collected also, he added. Thomas explained that the great whales – blues and humpbacks among them – are baleen whales. He also explained that the killer whale, dolphins and sperm whales are toothed whales. “The whale Aaron found is a toothed baleen whale. We have the ear bone that tells us it’s a baleen and the jaw which is toothed. This is probably the last toothed baleen whale that ever lived,” said Thomas. He based his comment on the fact that the whale’s existence 25 million years ago was at the earliest part of the Miocene Period. The toothed baleen whale was thought to be extinct in the Oligocene Period, the period before the Miocene Period. “It is also extremely significant that it is the only toothed baleen ever to be found in California. They have been found in Washington and Oregon and on the Baja, but nobody’s seen one in California before this,” said Thomas.
He said the site also included some dolphins and other animals and their recovery is a significant find. Plunkett fishes at Lake Casitas, said Thomas. “He stuck his fishing pole into the mud and put rocks around the pole to support it. One of those rocks was a vertebrae. He knew he had something and brought it to us. We took one look at that jaw fragment, took out a crew and found a 50-foot whale. We found the skull, or part of it, and found the tail part and it was spread out 50 feet long,” said Thomas.
Plunkett said he wants to remain involved in the project and wants to find the funding to establish a facility at Lake Casitas that would be an interpretive center and include documentation of the find. The actual fossil will remain in Los Angeles, said Thomas. If a center were created, however, he said a casting of the fossil would be made and recreated at the center. “Most likely a cast of the species would end up in the interpretive center with any missing parts in a different color,” said Thomas, adding, “it would make a nice little display. The pieces are too important scientifically, however, to actually be put at the center. That would be unheard of, considering the uniqueness of the find and the research that will be done.”
Thomas explained that much of Southern California is known to have been under the ocean 15 million years ago and more suspected to have been ocean bottom when this whale lived. He said the mountains forming Ojai’s rim did not exist at that time and have been created by recent – with the 25 million years under consideration – earthquakes. He said it is known that 15 million years ago, mountains to the east of Santa Barbara created an island off the mainland.
“Because the find is so recent I do not have a concrete concept or presentation of the eventual outcome,” said Plunkett. “There are many options. There are many aspects to consider.” Plunkett also said he had hoped the whale would remain in the Ojai Valley. “A museum, I feel, is only a portion of what this project could be,” said Plunkett. “The final phase would develop the possibilities and potential for community enrichment through paleontological, anthropological and cultural preservation into a multidimensional center, embracing facilities for instruction, public performances, history through storytelling, promotion of anthropological art forms and the like. I want to be involved at all levels on this project.”
Casitas Municipal Water District General Manager John Johnson said he would be happy to see such a center at the lake; however, recently environmentalists have been up in arms that the district has been creating water-play areas without new plans. “We are under the scrutiny of that kind of thing. (An interpretive center) is not in our long-term plan. Local environmentalists are saying anything like that is inappropriate,” said Johnson. Such expansion could result in the need for an environmental impact review.
Anyone wishing to donate to the project may contact Plunkett at Plunkett Productions and the Ojai Whale Society at (818) 569-5465.
By Pat Berenger
Posted online: October 17, 2004 8:52 PM at the Quad Cities Online, an edition of the Dispatch, The Rock Island Argus and The Leader, print publication date: October 18, 2004, by Pat Berenger, C1.
Plunketts Work to Protect Exposed, Unprotected Fossils
Saving the whales: Annie, Louie, Wendell and their 25-million-year-old bones
Elizabeth Elas Plunkett, formerly of Viola, found a fossilized whale bone on the shore of Lake Casitas in Ojai, Calif. , where she now lives. The fossil was found near a site where her son, Aaron Plunkett, found the fossilized whale vertebrae from two other whales. Paleontologists, who agree the find was the first of its kind in California, say the bones date back 25 million years.
Don’t mistake Elizabeth Elas Plunkett’s downcast eyes for being ashamed, bashful or embarrassed.
She’s not afraid of looking a person directly in the eyes and saying that she’s looking for something good down there. While others have their heads in the sky, the former Viola woman is finding treasures where others plant their feet. It’s something her grandmother told her would happen if she followed the rule.
“My grandmother always said ‘look down at the ground you never know what you’re going to find.’ Well, I found something. It’s there,and it’s real.”
Ms. Plunkett was walking along the beach at Lake Casitas near Ojai , Calif., in January 2003 when she saw something sticking out of the ground. Peeling the object from its earthy site, she quickly realized she had found something that amounted to more than a stick.
What she had found was a link to the past when whales still had teeth and were just beginning their evolution from land-roving creatures to ocean dwelling mammals.
“I’ve always been interested in fossils,” Ms. Plunkett said. “It runs in the family. My father, Louie Elas, owned a rock quarry, Independent Materials, near Viola. When I was little I’d find fossils out there and squirrel them away. Of course back then fossils were appreciated in a different way, as building materials.”
She’s hoping her discovery doesn’t suffer a similar fate. Her son, Aaron Plunkett, is lobbying to see that doesn’t happen to the whale they’ve named Annie our Ancestor, after her mother Annie Elas, a resident at Mercer County Nursing Home in Aledo.
Their goal is to get Annie our Ancestor on display at a museum alongside two other whales uncovered near her. Ms. Plunkett’s discovery was actually the third fossilized whale found in the area. The first two were found by Aaron in January 2000.
All three now lie in an unprotected area on the shore of Lake Casitas and are exposed to traffic as well as fossil hunters. Mr. Plunkett compares it to watching the Mona Lisa getting run over each day.
Mr. Plunkett’s discoveries have been named Louie and Wendell after Ms. Plunkett’s father, Louie Elas, and her ex-father-in-law, Wendell Plunkett.
It was only right that one of the fossilized whales be named after the elder Elas. He sparked the family’s passion for fishing. During fishing expedition in January 2000 on Lake Casitas, Mr. Plunkett was telling a friend about how, on the day of his grandfather Elas’s funeral service the family went fishing in his honor. During that excursion, Mr. Plunkett caught a white albino catfish.
As Mr. Plunkett continued the tale he took a second look at the rock he had leaned his pole against. It didn’t take another glance for him to realize what he was looking at.
“There was something about that rock,” Mr. Plunkett related in a story on a website dedicated to preserving the historic find. “It had very interesting texture, proportions and protrusions. This stone-bone made me believe it was something fossilized, but what?”
He decided it was fossilized bone, and noticed the whole area was covered with similar rocks.
Calling in experts from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Mr. Plunkett soon discovered the bones dated back 25 million years to the toothed baleen whale. The paleontologists called it the first find of its kind in California, “a bridge between the Miocene and Oligocene epochs.”
“It appears that they are laying there in tact,” Ms. Plunkett said. “Our dream is to get them on display somewhere. They are an important part of our evolution, our history. It makes you realize what a big world this is and what a small part you really have in it. Knowing these whales are there, I now have more of a reverence for the way things are and for the way things were. … All things are connected in some way. I think if they were visible it would help us understand ourselves a little better.”
To contact Aaron Plunkett
Learn more about the fossils and the Plunketts’ struggle to have them preserved at: https://www.ojaivalleywhalesociety.org
Aaron Plunkett is a percussionist who plays an Irish instrument known as the bones. His music can be heard in the movie “Titanic” and John Fogerty’s album “Deja vu All Over Again.”