A prehistoric whale that once prowled ocean waters covering eastern North Carolina was gently consigned to its final resting place last week in a glass case at Lake Waccamaw State Park.
Scientists, rangers and neighbors of the park celebrated a gleaming new exhibit in Lake Waccamaw’s visitor center that showcases the extremely rare, fossilized skull of the creature, four years after it was pried from the limestone lakebed. It is the most complete fossil in the world of a Balaenula whale that lived about 2.75 million years ago when much of the coastal area was under water. A member of the baleen family – a class of whales that includes today’s humpback and right whale species – the animal grew to about 20 feet long.
The story of the fossil’s discovery is nearly as unique as the fossil itself. Cathy Neilson, a neighbor and member of the park’s friends group, literally stumbled on the thing as she and friends were snorkeling a few yards offshore from her home. Thinking it might be important, she called then-superintendent Chris Helms who, in turn, contacted researchers, including Vince Schneider, a paleontologist from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
Schneider and members of the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch retrieved several pieces of limestone encasing the whale’s remains from waist-deep water, the largest being about the size of an engine block. Over the following months, Schneider enlisted the help of Alton Dooley of the Virginia Museum of Natural History in cleaning and reassembling the fragments of skull and jawbones. Dooley, who described the find as “scientifically very significant,” said it is one of only five such fossils found in the world and the only one in North America. He said scientists will continue to study it for years to come.
From the day of the find, Neilson, Helms and current superintendent Toby Hall envisioned the reassembled skull skillfully displayed at the park’s visitor center. Lake Waccamaw has a mysterious history as one of North Carolina’s bay lakes and a laundry list of curious creatures past and present. They reasoned the skull could become the natural crowning touch of the exhibit hall’s natural history exhibits. Schneider said that such discoveries as the Balaenula are often automatically absorbed into the museum’s collections in Raleigh, but that the state park and its friends were tenacious. “They really lobbied,” he said. “They eventually showed me that the people here really care for this specimen and that it should be here.”