Moby Dick's prehistoric cousin

November 6, 2001 - The Advertiser - Australia

It had all the hallmarks of a typical whale rescue except this whale was about 30 million years old.

Volunteers and scientists gathered yesterday at Port Willunga beach to haul a fossilised whale skull from its sandy resting place.

The only problem was the skull the oldest whale specimen found in SA was embedded in a 500kg sandstone boulder, requiring a four-wheel drive to drag it free.

In what became a day of drama, the hardy "rescue team" battled rain, a rock-strewn beach and a troublesome pickaxe to heave the massive rock on to a truck.

From there it was transported to the SA Museum, on North Tce, where the boulder will be placed in a vat of acid to remove the skull from its rocky tomb.

The ancestral toothed whale, a relative of modern whales and dolphins, died and was fossilised on the ocean bed about 30 million years ago, when the sea covered what is now Adelaide.

When the seas retreated, the skeleton was trapped in the sandstone cliffs of Port Willunga.

Erosion eventually took its toll and the boulder containing the skull toppled on to the beach.

To the untrained eye it appeared like any other rock, being played on by children and used as a hiding place for crabs.

About a month ago retired palaeontologist Neville Pledge visited the beach in the hope of finding fossil fragments and noticed the back of the skull poking through the rock.

"I was hoping to find a vertebrae, or something like that, I never imagined I would find a skull," he said.

"I was completely overwhelmed when I saw it."

He was joined by colleague Jennifer Thurmer, a former scientific illustrator from the museum. "I used to draw whale skulls, so when I saw this on the beach it was very exciting," she said. The museum's earth sciences collection manager, Ben McHenry, attacked the boulder with a pickaxe yesterday in the hope of reducing its size, but that plan was abandoned when the pickaxe broke.

Staff from National Parks and Wildlife and Onkaparinga Council along with two local residents who offered the brute force of their four-wheel-drive vehicle helped move the rock. Mr McHenry said the fossil was "an important find for South Australia".

"This is the oldest whale we have found in SA and possibly Australia," he said.

The skull is expected to be freed from the boulder after several months.

It will be studied and displayed at the museum.