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NARG Search and Rescue
A Whale of a Tail by Bill Sullivan

The Excavation - October 2007

Our story begins with a large fossil whale skull embedded in Empire formation sediments at Fossil Point in Coos Bay, Oregon. The Miocene specimen's age is estimated to be between 8-10 MYBP. During the last few years the exposed skull had fallen victim to seaside erosion and human predation (specimen hunting).

NARG was advised of the site location by a member in April of 2007. We consulted with our advisor at the Burke Museum in Seattle and Dr. Bill Orr, curator of the U of O's Thomas Condon Collection. We were advised that due to it's locality in the Empire formation the skull could be a new species, and as such was important to the scientific community. The institutions unfortunately, did not have funds available to excavate or prepare the skull specimen. All right! Here is a task for the NARG.

After securing the permission of the property owner we worked through permitting processes with Oregon Dept of State Lands. Mr. Arrow Coyote the tribal administrator for local native archeology gave his OK for excavation. Dr. Jan Hoddard, a local resident and Director of Oregon Institute of Marine Biology would be on hand to advise our crew's excavation and in fill of the site hole. It was time to organize our expedition.

Oregon State Lands permitted a window to excavate from October thru February. Favorable low high tides dictated our Search and Rescue crew mobilized and headed south to Coos Bay on October 16th.

Wednesday 10/17 after a brief sleep (or not) and breakfast, we hit the beach with bloodshot eyes and large coffees in hand. Oh, also in hand were generators, extension cords, pumps, wheelbarrow, wagon, tarps, tents, hand tools, electric hammers, buckets, rain gear, packs, food, drinks, and other fun stuff we packed down to the beach site. Our first day involved outlining the specimen perimeter and gaining about 8 in depth around the perimeter. All excavation materials were packed above the tide line in buckets and placed on tarps, so the material could be returned to the excavation site after the skull was removed. The ladies really worked, packing the matrix buckets to the grass covered bench above tide levels.

Thursday 10/18 after solid rain during the night we returned to the beach to deepen and define the excavation. After each high tide we begin by using pumps to excavate the hole. Following several hours of excavation and packing matrix buckets; we adjourned to the property owner's home for a late lunch, she owns a local café and did she ever provide a spread for us! After lots of digging and the start of undercutting the skull slab we quit for the day. We returned at twilight to put plaster on the exposed part of the skull. Unfortunately, it was one of the worst weather nights of the year. Wind was gusting up to 50 mph and rain coming down in buckets. We erected a canopy over the skull to keep it kind of dry and had people at each corner post holding the canopy down in 5 gallon buckets of water. After applying wet TP and plaster soaked gauze, we covered the skull slab with a tarp so it could cure sans rain or saline splash.

Friday 10/19 Crew members assembled about nine AM. First we pumped the cut and plastered the remaining part of the slab not done the night before. We also dug the trench deeper and significantly undercut the slab. We were concerned about crew safety so we cut sturdy posts to prop up the slab, so if it became unbalanced it would not fall on anyone. We spent much time discussing ways to undercut, how to break the slab free and how best to avoid putting strain on a natural fracture in the slab. During the day Andrew found a fossilized vertebrate disk a short distance from the skull. we strongly suspected it was from the same animal.

Saturday 10/20- With most of the heavy work done we had an easy day. The biggest effort was directed at breaking the slab free from its base and not having it fall over. We used plenty of lumber and bottle jacks to successfully accomplish our task. Away from the skull, Robert finds more bone on the beach in several pieces and is able to unite them to some bone still embedded in the beach. We are advised that assembled fossil is probably part of a whale scapula. It has been prepared. It is not associated with the whale. Weather continues to improve so there are only occasional rain showers which do not affect our work. Every one working on the rescue eats at the Empire Café this evening as a thank you to the gracious and hospitable property owner on whose land we have piled all our equipment and excavated matrix.

Oct.21, 2007 the day of reckoning arrives. We are anxious to have the whale slab removed from its sandstone tomb safely. The Track Hoe operator did a superb job carefully lifting it up, swinging it around and depositing it on some large timbers. In this position, we removed additional matrix to reduce the weight. While this was happening the Hoe was scooping the whale matrix into the hole. The matrix had been returned to the beach by many busy people carrying buckets and using a wheelbarrow. Having the Hoe do the filling of the hole vastly reduced our work load for which we were profoundly grateful. After filling in the hole, the Hoe then lifted the skull slab and slowwwly moved down the beach to the loading area about one-quarter mile away. The slab was carefully loaded onto a two axel low bed trailer and transported to points north. So ends our most ambitious fossil rescue to date. What experience we have gained!

Intrepid Excavation Members: Andrew and Steven Bland, Gail Baumala, Kimberly Brown, Gary Burgess and niece Rachael, John and Noah Brasseur, Tim Fisher, The Hecklethorn's (Larry, Janice, Chelsey, Brittany and Ashley, Peg and Rick Johnson, Trish Reading and Jan Kem, Dan Olaughlin, Larry Purchase, Garret Romaine, Robert Rose', Michael Santino, Bill Sullivan and Bruce Theil.

Trac Hoe Crew: Our sincere thanks and appreciation for extracting the specimen, and carting it around the point with low impact and great care. And most certainly thanks to Mike for hauling Wally the whale to Andrew's lab for preparation.

Mike Full: Organizer
Larry Henry: Operator par excellence
Marvin Reakin and Lisa Pipps: Tag line Whale handlers

We also thank the crew of Arial Truss Co. Inc for their equipment, time and effort offloading this 2 ton+ cast of bone and matrix on Andrew's driveway. Chuck Holt and Matt Paulus did a great job positioning the crane in a space requiring very restricted movement.

Our sincere appreciation to Dr. Jan Goddard Oregon Institute for Marine Biology: for her expert guidance during excavation. She helped us minimize our impact upon the tidelands.

For guidance and council we thank our esteemed Advisors:

Dr. Bill Orr University of Oregon Professor emeritus Curator of the Condon Collection.

Jim Goedart Burke Museum

To all members and guests a job well done!

Respectfully Submitted,

Bill Sullivan and Robert Rosé

 

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