Carbon Dating

Fossil hunter Jeff DiMeglio has an understanding girlfriend to thank for his discovery of 8-million-year-old whale remains.

January 31, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

SOLOMONS - To be an amateur fossil hunter you have to learn to read topographic maps and tide charts.

You have to approach property owners and persuade them to let you romp around on their land.

You have to give up your weekends to go wade through knee-high muck.

To be the 22-year-old amateur fossil hunter who found an 8-million-year-old whale skull, your girlfriend has to be willing to go with you.

Jeff DiMeglio, a stone carver from Alexandria, Va., found the skull on the banks of the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland. He says, "I couldn't have done it if my girlfriend wasn't accepting of trudging through the rain and mud to look for shark's teeth."

This is what a great girlfriend Sarah Gulick, a 22-year-old graphic artist, is:

While everyone else was dreading the approach of Tropical Storm Isabel, Jeff was studying a 4-foot-by-4-foot map, eyeing the hundreds of push-pins that represent his finds, and deciding where to go first.

He knew the storm would unearth buried treasure, and he wanted to try the Mattaponi River in Virginia where he's found mako shark teeth and seal metatarsals. His goal is to find a mako tooth biting into a metatarsal.

But Isabel flooded the river.

So he picked up his girlfriend hours before daylight and drove from Fauquier County, Va., to the sea cliffs in Calvert County with the canoe atop his truck and the bobble-head alligator on the dashboard bobbing. Behind the seat were rolled-up maps and dirtied field copies of books with names like Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region and Molluscan, Biostratigraphy of the Miocene.

It was a warm day, nice enough for Jeff, who has a lumberjack's beard, to wear shorts and a Hawaiian-print shirt. Sarah has gone fossil hunting enough to know to pack lightly. They took a rake and a pocketknife and their lunch in buckets (to be used later to haul back their finds).

Jeff had hoped to find crab fossils and ecphora gardnerae gardnerae, Maryland's official state fossil shell, which he calls "one of the most elegant gastropods you have." Sarah was going to England and Jeff wanted something she could use to barter for ammonite fossil shells over there.

At Calvert Cliffs, they were walking along a sediment shelf when he spied a blackened rib bone about 2 inches long.

Jeff lived in Waldorf from the age of 6 to 13 and his mother used to take him and his brother Tony to North Beach to look for shark's teeth. He was so interested in fossils as a boy that his nickname was "Rocks and Minerals," and while other kids played kickball at recess he combed through the pea gravel under their feet.

Jeff's interest waned after the female of his species caught his eye. But years later, taking geology classes to get his stone carver's certification, he met other fossil hunters and returned to the hobby.

Jeff recognized the blackened bone instantly. And Sarah took pictures before they scooped up the first wet clump of clay. He would later say of that moment: "We were quite ramped."

They used the buckets to haul water from the river and wash over the bone. Only then did they see how much more lay beneath the surface. They had discovered the whale's lower jaw and palette; the 18-foot-long creature had been flipped upside down, probably by sharks that would have eaten the savory tongue first and then fed on the carcass.

Jeff worried that unearthing any more would make the discovery vulnerable to poachers. He and Sarah covered the fossil with a piece of plywood and rushed to the Calvert Marine Museum.

Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology, gets dozens of messages - and the majority of his specimens - from amateur fossil hunters, so a few days passed before he replied. When he talked to Jeff, he was reminded of an e-mail Sarah had sent two years ago after she and Jeff discovered a site threatened by a road crew.

Godfrey and Jeff went back to the scene and found the plywood where Jeff had left it, and the whale skull safely underneath.

That was a few months ago, and Jeff hasn't been out fossil hunting since. Finding shark's teeth in snow and ice is like "finding a needle in 80,000 gallons of Slurpee," he says. He's waiting for the spring thaw.

On Thursday, Jeff took the day off from where he's been working on the World War II Memorial to be erected in Washington and went to the Calvert Marine Museum to see his find presented to the public.

Sarah, unfortunately, is in England and couldn't be with him.

Jeff didn't step up to the microphone and speak to the audience. He let Godfrey explain how paleontologists preserved the find, and how the Patuxent River Naval Air Station airlifted it to the museum, and how the whale lived at a time when a family of smaller whales was dying out and a family of larger whales was coming into being.

Jeff sat through the presentation and when it was over walked to the gift shop to look for a book called Shark's Teeth of the World.

The gift shop didn't have it in stock but Jeff wasn't disappointed. That's how it goes when you're an amateur fossil hunter.

Sometimes you find what you're looking for.

Sometimes you don't find anything at all.

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the thing - a whale skull, the right girlfriend - finds you.

Jeffrey DiMeglio

Age: 22

Occupation: Stone carver at Columbia Gardens Memorial Inc., Arlington, Va.

Education: Attended George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College

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