Rick Kussman was strolling on a rocky bluff near Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro when he spotted something that caught his eye. Embedded in a rock was a large fossil with ridges. At first glance he thought it was an alligator belly. Looking closer, he noticed a fossilized nerve and a jawbone.
"I was really excited," Kussman said Wednesday. "I walked around it three times like an excited puppy."
He called the nearby Cabrillo Marine Aquarium about his find. Staff member Dennis Miller determined that the rock held a rare fossilized portion of whale baleen that is 12 million to 14 million years old. Baleen is the thick bristle-like substance on a whale's upper jaw that filters plankton.
There are only six other similar baleen fossils on exhibit in the world, said Bill Samaras, the aquarium's volunteer paleontologist and a retired marine biology teacher. Rigging the 200-pound fossil-encased rock atop a makeshift wooden carrier, eight men last week carted it a quarter mile to the aquarium where it will be put on display as part of a new whale exhibit opening in May.
Fossilized baleen is extremely uncommon because baleen decomposes quickly. To fossilize, the baleen needs to be buried in oxygen-poor, deep-water sediment. It's like finding a fossilized human being with its hair or fingernails still intact, said Ed Mastro, the aquarium's exhibits curator. The baleen was part of a whale species similar to a right whale.
Kussman, who lives in San Pedro near Point Fermin, often walks along the beach to check cliff erosion near his house. He has found smaller sea sponge and shark tooth fossils, but nothing this large or unusual.
However, he has no plans to keep the fossil. "It is best preserved here," he said. "San Pedro is a whale-oriented community. It belongs here at the aquarium."