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The Loss of a Fossil Whale on the Western Shores of the Chesapeake Bay (Calvert Cliffs)

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The Loss of a Fossil Whale on the Western Shores of the Chesapeake Bay (Calvert Cliffs)


Article and Images By Paul R. Murdoch Jr.

fossil whale at calvert cliffs, as found

Figure 1: Tips of whale jaws as spotted in March, 2014. The bones were in excellent condition but were extending back into the cliff face which is private property.



The Discovery

In March of 2014 my friend Paleoscan and I were out for a fossil walk at a decent low tide along Calvert Cliffs at one of our favorite spots. Once we got to a productive area I heard him call out "Come here and take a look at this!" I ran up hoping he had spotted a big fossil tooth in the water but this was a pretty cool sight - and even rarer - the tips of both lower jaws of a baleen whale had eroded out of the cliffs right at the water's edge!!! They were pretty sizable; about four inches thick and they were going back at a slight angle and appeared to be flipped on their sides but in relative life position. I took my camera from my back pack and laid a water bottle next to the find and took several pictures.



This was definitely something worth contacting the Calvert Marine Museum about and determining if they could get permission to quarry the fossil whale specimen. The fossil bone looked to be in great shape; a nice tan color which in this zone usually meant that it was not re-deposited and had a chance to be articulated. My guess was that the skull was between those jaws and about four to five feet long. We gathered some sand to re-cover the jaws and then continued with our hunt. When we came back the tide had come back in and had totally covered the bones. Some other fossil hunter had even walked past the whale jaws not ten minutes after we had re-hid them with the sand so it looked like the find would be safe for a while.



I contacted the Museum that Monday and emailed them the pictures. They were excited about the find and they went to work on securing permission to quarry the specimen. None of the land along Calvert Cliffs is public; it is all owned by someone whether private or through a local or state agency so we had to get permission. I was hopeful they could get permission since the museum had been able to quarry several finds in the past from this general area but there were some home-made erosion control devices in the water in front of the cliff near this spot so I was not overly optimistic.


The Destruction

For those unfamiliar with the housing design plan and real estate issues in Calvert County Maryland there are several. Most the cliff facing lots are set for a minimum size. These lands were purchased starting in the 1950s when housing was geared for a summer vacation cottages; not for full-time living. This means that lots usually have a 50 foot frontage and a 100 foot length which not only the house needs to sit on but the driveway, and a septic tank and the drain field.


eroded fossil whale skull at calvert cliffs

Figure 2: What remains of the whale skull; you can see some articulated ribs at the left (cranial side) of the skull. By now the jaws and the rostrum (front) of the skull had eroded away.


Now consider that several studies have been done and the known rate of cliff erosion is 1-2 feet per year in the county on average (at this site its less but it is prone to more sudden and dramatic slides which can take 10 years-worth of land at a time). As the county swelled in population due to the opening of the then BG&E nuclear power plant along Calvert Cliffs in the 1980s there was a commission formed to make suggestions about how to assist the county in long-term residential planning. The commission suggested changing the size of property lots and the creation of a disclosure waiver concerning waterfront property issues. Alas, the commission's report was overruled and so to this day you are not warned as a buyer of waterfront property in Calvert County Maryland that you will have an erosion issue.

In short, this means it is not uncommon for the museum to have to get permission from several homeowners just to make sure all aspects are covered for the dig and that one of them will probably say no. Now you begin to understand why someone would not want you digging into the base of the cliff on their property or their neighbors!

It didn't take long for the primary homeowner to decline the CMM's request when they were contacted about excavating the fossil whale at the fringe of their property. I was disappointed and over the next year would walk past the site (usually sand covered) and wonder what was being eroded out. This string of events unfortunately is very common along the Cliffs. In my over 20 years of collecting less than half of the items that I report to the CMM ever gets collected. The two main reasons are: 1) The landowner or government agency is unwilling to provide permission or 2) The specimen gets ruined by the elements or others by the time determining who owns the property and the steps of contacting and securing the permission from the landowner is complete.



Time continued to go by and we usually fossil hunted this spot together at least once every two months (Paleoscan more often than I) and nothing else was noticed; it remained covered by the sand. That all changed in May of 2015. We could now see that not only the once nearly complete skull but the whale jaws had mostly succumbed to the waves and sand.



This was disappointing but now even more of the fossil remains were exposed; a lot more!!! A string of articulated vertebras was now extending along the base of the cliff; laterally exposed so not a great deal of digging would be required to extract them. It was quite a sight to see!!! Again we documented the extent of the specimen; now at nearly sixteen feet with the tail section still going back into the cliff so we again contacted the museum. Unfortunately the specimen was not in the base clay but still partially in the cliff face and permission was still needed to quarry the specimen and was again denied.


eroded fossil whale at calvert cliffs - this shows the ribs and vertebra eroding out of the cliffs

Figure 3: April 2015; forty two inch fossil scoop used for scale. Visible bones extended from tip of snout at the scoop to the vertebra that end at the brick propped up against cliff; there the bones continued into the cliff face.




It was not more than a few months had passed that even more had exposed out. Now it was close to 16 feet long and many people had started to notice. The sand could no longer cover such a large specimen.

The community became aware of the fossil find and they had several concerns; of which they wanted the specimen saved and preserved but they also had concerns about the number of people illegally accessing their beach to see the specimen and collecting at the site. At this point I reached out to the President of the community as well as an active collector residing there and we discussed what we could do to get this resolved.


eroded fossil whale at calvert cliffs - here, the ribs can be seen

Figure 4: Over three feet of articulated ribs located directly behind the skull. Notice the detached vertebra bone caps (epiphysis or "cookies") at the left. This indicates that this animal was still a sub-adult as these growth plates fuse when the animal reaches maturity.



eroded fossil whale at calvert cliffs - vertebra

Figure 5: Thoracic (chest) and Lumbar (lower back) vertebra. Notice that the fossil vertebra have not transitioned to caudal (tail) yet so this specimen might have extended an additional four to six feet bring the total body length in life to nearly twenty feet!




It was then that we found out that the property had recently fallen into foreclosure and perhaps with pressure from the community the bank holding the property might allow this specimen to be collected. This was pursued; interviews were held with the above mentioned individuals and a newspaper story with the Calvert Recorder was created. You Can Read the Article Here.



This pleased the community seeing that all parties (their Community Leaders, The CMM, the local paper, and various fossil collectors) worked together towards a resolution but yet again we were unsuccessful. I again revisited the site and documented the find visually. It was confirmed by the CMM that this was the most complete whale specimen ever documented from the Calvert Cliffs. When reviewed through the visual documentation you could see the whale was nearly complete; only the flipper bones seem to have disarticulated away from the body. All of the vertebras were in a connecting life position; ribs were in place and the vertebral column extended all of the way to the tail.



A few weeks after the second decline Paleoscan was back out in the area on a fossil hunt. When he got close to the fossil whale he could see someone kneeling in front of it and shouted out (so not to sneak up on them and scare them) asking what he was doing. The collector, who Paleoscan did not recognize, said he had heard about the whale and was there collecting some of the vertebra. Paleoscan informed him of the laws and property rights for Maryland fossil collecting. The guy said he was unaware, apologized, and then offered to give the vertebras to Paleoscan, who refused. The collector then immediately packed up and left the area with the bones.


eroded fossil whale at calvert cliffs - a year later, the fossil whale is still eroding out

Figure 6: May 2015 revisit; a full year since initially discovered and reported to the CMM. Now the site showed evidence of bones being illegally dug and removed from the specimen. At this point the community was calling police and having trespassers removed from their beach.




It was very disappointing that the CMM was only able to obtain float material from this find. To my knowledge, only one ear bone (that hopefully is diagnostic to the species level) made its way into the CMM's permanent collection; none of the other remains of the whale did. Several more bones were also illegally taken at various points in the following weeks and so their scientific value was lost with their removal.



It was quite a sight to see this specimen in the field. In truth, this would have been quite an undertaking to try to remove such a large and intact specimen. The constantly changing water levels here would have assured the fossil would be underwater for hours each day, sometimes constantly for days straight, making jacketing a very hard task to coordinate. It would have been too big to take out in one piece and where would you safely prep and store such a large specimen? All good problems that the paleo staff at the CMM would have taken on and handled.



The Second Whale

All paleontological finds are not lost on this stretch of beach though. Later that summer Paleoscan struck again and spotted another whale skull not more than 150 yards away from this one. The new find was a few feet above the water in the cliff and the CMM was able to get permission from that landowner.


Another fossil whale skull at the calvert cliffs

Figure 7: Summer 2015; This was approximately the same sized skull as the other that was unable to be quarried. Initially believed to be cut transversally (in half from back to front) the specimen, when fully prepped at the CMM, did contain the full back of the skull including both sets of ear bones. This narrow skull is a very interesting specimen since most in the CMM's collection are more wedged shaped.




I hope you enjoyed the pictures and the tale of these whales. It was much better to see the articulated specimen in person - the pictures just don't do the specimen justice.

I'll close this with a request that if you see something of interest while fossil hunting along Calvert Cliffs take a picture and call the CMM. Give them a chance to have it preserved so that others can enjoy it too. You will get the credit for finding the specimen no matter how large or small and who knows; you might even find something new that you can have named after you!!

Paul R. Murdoch Jr.


eroded fossil whale at calvert cliffs

Figure 8: Close-up of the second skull spotted by Paleoscan before getting a plaster field jacket. The snout or rostrum is the visible bones. To uncover the rest it had to be prepared in the CMM prep lab.



Prepped fosisl whale skull at the CMM

Figure 9: March, 2016. By this date the skull has been nearly fully prepared in the CMM fossil prep lab where it currently resides. The rear of the skull is to the left and is mostly present. The two round objects are the set of the whale's ear bones; the tympanic bullas. Stop by the lab and ask to see it for yourself.



Prepped fosisl whale skull at the CMM - the ear bones are circled

Figure 10: This is the same image as above, but each bulla or whale ear bone is circled. The bullas are one of the key diagnostic features that help paleontologists determine what species a fossil whale belongs to.





Outdoor and Nature Books About the Chesapeake Bay

The Calvert Cliffs are a wonderful place to fossil collect at because they are along the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. The countless miles of wetlands provide habitats for numerous birds including bald eagles and osprey. The waters are home to yummy blue crabs, rock fish, and oysters. The tranquility of these wetlands make it an ideal place for outdoor sports, such as hiking, kayaking, and biking.

Below are my favorite books for exploring Americas largest estuary.


A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region
by Bryan MacKay

This is a pretty cool book! It gives step by step instructions on how to see the Nature in the Chesapeake Bay area first hand. From the Monarch Butterfly Migration and Eagle nesting spots, to things like polychaete worm mating during the new moon in May! This book is set up to have a unique "Trip a Week" for an entire year. If you live near the Cheasapeake Bay Estuary, this book is a must!





Hiking, Cycling, and Canoeing in Maryland: A Family Guide
by Bryan MacKay

This book is by the same author of "A Year Across Maryland"
MacKay provides numerous walks, bicycle rides, and canoe trips. For each trip, he goes over the natural history and ecology of the site. It's like having your personal guide with you for each activity. It contains well made maps and drawings. If you are looking into exploring Marylands outdoors, this is a great stepping stone.