By Stefanie Dazio — To reach the 15-million-year-old whale, the paleontologists and their entourage hiked a quarter of mile Tuesday, trudging along the slim shoreline of the Potomac River which separates Maryland and Virginia and wading into knee-deep water not far from the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.
For more than five hours, they chipped away at clay covering the bones of the ancient goliath, which likely belong to an extinct baleen whale that would have been 25 feet long. Based on the cliffs where it was discovered in Stratford, Va., the whale lived during the Miocene Epoch, five million to 23 million years ago.
"You're seeing stuff for the first time in 15 million years. You're seeing history be exposed," said John Nance, paleontology collections manager at the Calvert Marine Museum in Southern Maryland and a member of the team that made news by extracting a six-foot-long, 1,000-pound whale skull from the site last month.
They have been working here ever since mid-June, when a staff member at Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lee family, spotted the whale skull poking out of the sandy cliffs while accompanying researchers on a pollen study.
On Tuesday, the group used pickaxes, shovels, screwdrivers, putty chisels, paper towels and plaster to find and then preserve the whale's ribs, vertebrae, tail bones and possibly a scapula. They will return Saturday to dig the bones out and take them to the Calvert museum, where they plan to reassemble as much of the skeleton as possible.
The dig resembled a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. And the excitement was palpable. While shark teeth and dolphin fossils have been discovered in the area, the whale is the largest creature they've uncovered.
Kate Kistler, a 21-year-old rising senior at Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania and aspiring paleontologist, said it was fascinating to see an organism that lived millions of years ago uncovered in the cliffs.