In the murky waters of Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, a monstrous and prehistoric creature rested, just waiting to be discovered.
OK, so it isn’t Swamp Thing. But an ancient whale skull is almost as cool.
The fossilized whale skull is estimated to be more than 5 million years old, and is riddled with massive teeth marks thought to be from the famed megalodon shark. The best part: It could be an entirely new whale species.
Diver and paleontologist Jason Osborne discovered the skull in June 2013, despite the swamp’s zero-visibility conditions, but it took two more years of careful planning before the fragile fossil came to the surface.
“I was nervous I wouldn’t find the skull again, and that flooding may have destroyed it,” says Osborne. “Luckily I did find it, and it was in great condition.”
To retrieve the skull, Osborne needed a large boat, and most importantly, something to lift the skull without breaking it or losing any important pieces of bone that could detach during the transition. His solution: a body bag.
“It took our team of four people two days to get it out, in 25 feet of water with low visibility. We were basically night diving,” says Osborne.
The whale fossil was then donated to the Calvert Marine Museum for scientific research, where whale expert Stephen Godfrey will test the skull for signs of a new species.
Osborne is the co-founder of Paleo Quest, a non-profit that works to locate and retrieve ancient artifacts and fossils founded in 2010. Since then, the Paleo Quest team has found many other fossils in the past four years of diving in and around the Great Dismal Swamp near Newport News, Virginia, including porpoise whale bones and detached megalodon teeth.
“I’ve been startled many times while diving for fossils,” says Osborne, who has never dived in clear water except for the pool he was certified in 11 years ago. “I can’t emphasize how amazing it is to see the skull of a whale, to touch it for the first time … the discovery of it all motivates me to keep diving.”