Whale fossil find gives peek at watery past

By Robert P. King, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2004

From: http://www.palmbeachpost.com

Out past the polo fields, tomato farms and asphalt plants of western Palm Beach County, researchers have found a whale near Wellington.

A blue whale, to be precise -- a petrified, prehistoric specimen of the Earth's largest-ever animal, buried in fragments at the bottom of a 45-foot-deep rock quarry west of Lion Country Safari.

Surprised to hear of a 60-foot-long whale 20 miles from the ocean? Don't be, says Florida Atlantic University geologist Edward Petuch, whose crew stumbled on pieces of the whale skeleton last month while looking for shell fossils.

Petuch says the skeleton offers a glimpse of life in South Florida 1.6 million years ago, when most of the region lay under the sea.

Back then, Wellington and Royal Palm Beach were coastal islands, and Southern Boulevard was a 60-foot-deep pass between the ocean and an inland sea, says Petuch, who has written books based on excavations across the state. Blue, right and humpback whales may have bred in the modern-day Everglades, swimming inland past what would become Burt Reynold's ranch in Jupiter Farms.

"They'd cruise down Indiantown Road and hang out on U.S. 27, basically south of Belle Glade," Petuch said Tuesday during a visit to the quarry, operated by mining company Palm Beach Aggregates. "It must have looked like the Bahamas."

But it was probably no vacation spot for this particular whale, which Petuch says appears to have beached itself on a 3-to-4-foot-deep tidal flat fringed with mangrove islands.

What happened next? A bronze-colored, 2-foot-long fragment of its lower jaw offers one clue -- a series of deep scratches, probably from a great white shark. "That was where it was scraping the meat off the bone," Petuch said.

This blue whale is the second to be found at the quarry in the past year. Petuch said more may be discovered.

Larry Haley, one of Petuch's field assistants, said he found the skeleton late last month while looking for shell fossils.

"I thought it was petrified wood," said Haley, a former reporter who covered the O.J. Simpson murder case for The National Enquirer. "Then I picked it up and realized it was bone marrow, and whale."

So far, the researchers have found only scattered fragments of its lower jawbone, which Petuch estimated was about 25 feet long. Using a pickax and shovel Tuesday, they also found pieces of a 2 1/2 -foot-long vertebra.

The whale is just one of a host of prehistoric goodies unearthed by Palm Beach Aggregates, which is carving and blasting the earth to dig up rock for the highway and construction industries. The quarry's chalk-colored bottom is filled with relics of all sorts -- extinct tulip shells, fist-sized Miltha clams, spiral-coned mudcreeper snails and fossilized rose corals resembling brain-shaped radiator grills.

If nothing else, Petuch said, the discoveries should offer a new perspective to commuters stuck on Southern Boulevard in rush hour.

"When you're caught in traffic and stuff, just think how cool it was," he said. "It was like Whale Harbor."