A Whale of a Tale
By Chris Wilson
Is an ancient whale fossil, slowly sifted to the soil’s surface by the gentle rise and fall of a Southern-California lake’s water level, somehow thwarting its own excavation by a team of Los Angeles Natural History Museum scientists?
Or is something else hidden, mysterious and sacred preventing the LANHM from retrieving what could very possibly be one of California’s most significant contributions to marine paleontology?
It is questions like these that have perplexed the man who discovered the grayish, but well preserved, bones more than three-and-a-half years ago. Since Aaron Plunkett, music teacher, performer and hobby fisherman laid hands on the first bits and pieces of the 25 million year old whale’s 30 foot skeleton on the dusty banks of Lake Casitas, his bewilderment has been slowly escalating. And he keeps asking why he seems to be the only one who cares about excavating the ancient bones and preserving them for future generations.
“As an educator and, incidentally, a link in the chain of life and education, I’m in a dilemma about how to preserve this whale and the knowledge that these irreplaceable fossils represent in our own chain of evolutionary existence,” Plunkett says.
Excited by his find because he realized its importance and how it fit nicely into a missing link of whales as they evolved through the earliest part of the Miocene Epoch and one of the last of a variety of whales that sported both teeth and baleen still alive from the end of the Oligocene Epoch, Plunkett quickly alerted scientist at LANHM, who sent scientists to the site to examine the fossils.
Larry Barnes, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at LANHM told the Los Angeles Times (10/27/2000) that Plunkett had indeed found, “a very important species,” and made arrangements with the Casitas Municipal Water District to remove the fossil. But since then several dates for removal of the fossil have come and gone while the majority of the fossil remains in the ground.
“They’re either forgetting, missing and/or breaking the laws that were established to protect and preserve these kinds of artifacts,” Plunkett says, citing the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (H.R. 2974 and S. 2727).
Meanwhile, Plunkett established a non-profit organization, the Ojai Valley Whale Society to aid in the removal, modeling and building of the whale fossil he’d discovered. Plunkett has made a point of keeping an eye on his find. In spite of his growing disillusionment and dismay with the lack of action by the museum while tracking their inaction and making efforts to communicate with them, Plunkett has worked hundreds of hours running virtually all aspects of his 501c3.
“I’m essentially playing six roles: discoverer, founder, president, spokesperson, investigative reporter and concerned citizen,” he says.
Even though Plunkett has peppered the Natural History Museum with letters, e-mails and phone calls over the past three years, he’s had only one or two conversations with officials of the museum, which was given ownership of the fossils by CMWD (Casitas Municipal Water District). In the meantime, Plunkett has noted and photographed tire tracks from apparent four-wheel drive joy rides tearing through the site of the sensitive fossils. More than once he has alerted LANHM to the continued, ignorant destruction of the site, but drew little more than a raised eyebrow from the museum staff. With some effort he was able to get CMWD groundskeepers to install signs halting vehicle traffic in and around the site.
March 24, 2003
Frustrated at LANHM’s apparent lackadaisical concern for the fossils, Plunkett begins to reveal anger while discussing his conundrum. But anger just doesn’t become him. Plunkett’s gentle and soft-spoken manner is more akin to a young Mister Rogers ready to calmly and efficiently instruct small children. And then to read the stack of unanswered e-mails that he has written and sent that are riddled with exclamation marks, bold font type faces, and demands, one senses a surreal silliness that ends up feeling profoundly sad…like all the other soldiers standing around biting their fingernails, embarrassed for David as he heads down to face the giant Goliath because he seems so tiny compared to his opponent. And they’re all a little ashamed and guilty too, because they’re too afraid to stick up for themselves. But Plunkett’s sling is his pen and digital camera, recording tire track transgressions against his ancestors’ graves.
Plunkett has discovered in the past few years that such situations are rife with corruption. He quotes Lewis M. Simon, an investigative reporter from the October 2000 issue of National Geographic regarding 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, naive assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulations, backbiting, lying, corruption, and most of all abysmal communication.”
But despite all the trials Plunkett has faced, in many ways he couldn’t be a more perfect person to have found the whale’s eon-hardened skeleton. As a child, his mother encouraged Aaron and his brother to become familiar with nature and history and would often take the two boys to the Natural History Museum so they would learn and explore their curiosity of the mystery of evolution, which helped Plunkett to see the interconnectedness of life both in a scientific and spiritual manner. This early exposure also inspired him to dream of an interpretive center with a model of the whale near where it was discovered on the banks of Casitas.
“That’s why I fish for that world record bass too,” he says. “My dream is to have a hog pen with the fish next to a full-sized model of the whale (a “hog pen” is a gigantic viewing aquarium that supports big fish and imitates the eco system of the lake). Then people would look at the live fish and the whale. And then there’s no way they couldn’t get the connection. We came from these creatures.”
To further the odd connection, Plunkett’s father is an orthopedic surgeon, so he was constantly exposed to another realm of bones, being allowed to occasionally watch surgeries and bones in action. Not wishing to study medicine, Plunkett headed to art school instead and studied music. He eventually discovered and built the most ancient of instruments, the musical bones. He makes further connections between what he hopes to bring to an interpretive center/native museum and how essential music is to the process.
“All instruments come from dead things, or from the earth,” Plunkett begins. “The first instruments, besides the human voice, were probably made of bone and stone and came along about 2 and a half million years ago. A bass cello is made from a dead tree; a piano is made from wood and molten metal. At Cal Arts I began making my own instruments and subsequently spent a lot of my time with the remnants of dead things. Bones.”
Now, Goliath yawns, as young David loads his pictures of tire tracks, cites laws, and documents the slowness of bureaucracy. And, in this sequel to a long-ago tail, if David is once again successful in slaying the mighty, tax-sponsored giant, the question that looms….. who but Plunkett will be there to pick up the pieces?