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The Dispatch: Plunketts Work to Protect Exposed, Unprotected Fossils

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The Dispatch
10/18/2004
By Pat Berenger
Posted online: October 17, 2004 8:52 PM at the Quad Cities Online, an edition of the Dispatch, The Rock Island Argus and The Leader, print publication date: October 18, 2004, by Pat Berenger, C1.

Plunketts Work to Protect Exposed, Unprotected Fossils
Saving the whales: Annie, Louie, Wendell and their 25-million-year-old bones

Elizabeth Elas Plunkett, formerly of Viola, found a fossilized whale bone on the shore of Lake Casitas in Ojai, Calif. , where she now lives. The fossil was found near a site where her son, Aaron Plunkett, found the fossilized whale vertebrae from two other whales. Paleontologists, who agree the find was the first of its kind in California, say the bones date back 25 million years.

Don’t mistake Elizabeth Elas Plunkett’s downcast eyes for being ashamed, bashful or embarrassed.

She’s not afraid of looking a person directly in the eyes and saying that she’s looking for something good down there. While others have their heads in the sky, the former Viola woman is finding treasures where others plant their feet. It’s something her grandmother told her would happen if she followed the rule.

“My grandmother always said ‘look down at the ground you never know what you’re going to find.’ Well, I found something. It’s there,and it’s real.”

Ms. Plunkett was walking along the beach at Lake Casitas near Ojai , Calif., in January 2003 when she saw something sticking out of the ground. Peeling the object from its earthy site, she quickly realized she had found something that amounted to more than a stick.

What she had found was a link to the past when whales still had teeth and were just beginning their evolution from land-roving creatures to ocean dwelling mammals.

“I’ve always been interested in fossils,” Ms. Plunkett said. “It runs in the family. My father, Louie Elas, owned a rock quarry, Independent Materials, near Viola. When I was little I’d find fossils out there and squirrel them away. Of course back then fossils were appreciated in a different way, as building materials.”

She’s hoping her discovery doesn’t suffer a similar fate. Her son, Aaron Plunkett, is lobbying to see that doesn’t happen to the whale they’ve named Annie our Ancestor, after her mother Annie Elas, a resident at Mercer County Nursing Home in Aledo.

Their goal is to get Annie our Ancestor on display at a museum alongside two other whales uncovered near her. Ms. Plunkett’s discovery was actually the third fossilized whale found in the area. The first two were found by Aaron in January 2000.

All three now lie in an unprotected area on the shore of Lake Casitas and are exposed to traffic as well as fossil hunters. Mr. Plunkett compares it to watching the Mona Lisa getting run over each day.

Mr. Plunkett’s discoveries have been named Louie and Wendell after Ms. Plunkett’s father, Louie Elas, and her ex-father-in-law, Wendell Plunkett.

It was only right that one of the fossilized whales be named after the elder Elas. He sparked the family’s passion for fishing. During fishing expedition in January 2000 on Lake Casitas, Mr. Plunkett was telling a friend about how, on the day of his grandfather Elas’s funeral service the family went fishing in his honor. During that excursion, Mr. Plunkett caught a white albino catfish.

As Mr. Plunkett continued the tale he took a second look at the rock he had leaned his pole against. It didn’t take another glance for him to realize what he was looking at.

“There was something about that rock,” Mr. Plunkett related in a story on a website dedicated to preserving the historic find. “It had very interesting texture, proportions and protrusions. This stone-bone made me believe it was something fossilized, but what?”

He decided it was fossilized bone, and noticed the whole area was covered with similar rocks.

Calling in experts from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Mr. Plunkett soon discovered the bones dated back 25 million years to the toothed baleen whale. The paleontologists called it the first find of its kind in California, “a bridge between the Miocene and Oligocene epochs.”

“It appears that they are laying there in tact,” Ms. Plunkett said. “Our dream is to get them on display somewhere. They are an important part of our evolution, our history. It makes you realize what a big world this is and what a small part you really have in it. Knowing these whales are there, I now have more of a reverence for the way things are and for the way things were. … All things are connected in some way. I think if they were visible it would help us understand ourselves a little better.”

To contact Aaron Plunkett
E-mail: plunkett@ojaivalleywhalesociety.org

Learn more about the fossils and the Plunketts’ struggle to have them preserved at: http://www.ojaivalleywhalesociety.org

Aaron Plunkett is a percussionist who plays an Irish instrument known as the bones. His music can be heard in the movie “Titanic” and John Fogerty’s album “Deja vu All Over Again.”

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