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.