Whale Tales of Ancient Peru

Share

A family trip to see a giant collection of fossil whales in Peru’s southern desert forges connections across generations and continents.

As we pull off the Pan‑American Highway that parallels Peru’s coast, the irrigated greenery of the plain gives way to barren brown hills. Finally, we come to a stop outside a cinderblock building in a dusty, single‑storey village, and a deeply tanned man in a faded camouflage shirt limps toward our pickup. Our driver rolls down the passenger‑side window, filling the cab with the smell of cigarettes and stale sweat in the ambient 37°C heat and the newcomer reaches in to shake my hand, introducing himself as Mario Urbina Schmitt, paleontologist.

We had no idea who would be guiding us to what my 16‑year‑old son, Alex, had described as the world’s richest known deposit of marine fossils. An avid naturalist and amateur paleontologist since the age of two (he could pronounce Xenotarsosaurus before many everyday words), Alex runs a paleontology‑themed Instagram (“Paleontology Aficionado”) with 30,000 followers. He had lobbied hard for this spring‑break jaunt to the south of Peru, arguing that the Ocucaje Desert fossil bed and the living fauna of the nearby Paracas National Reserve should be top of the list for our family of two adults and two teenage boys.

While Paracas, “the poor man’s Galapagos,” is well known within Peru and abroad, the Ocucaje fossil bed is not. Back in Canada, I’d googled three tour companies offering to take people there. One offered the excursion only as part of a very pricey three‑week tour. The others never responded, but one had an office in a hostel in Huacachina, a quirky oasis town on our route – and that’s how we found Urbina Schmitt.

January 26, 2021
Fish fossils scatter the Ocucaje Desert floor in southern Peru
Fish fossils scatter the Ocucaje Desert floor in southern Peru. The area has one of the greatest troves of marine fossils in the world.

As we would learn over the next few hours, he’s a mostly self‑taught paleontologist (kind of like Alex) who nonetheless is a researcher at the natural history museum of the National University of San Marcos in Lima. He mastered English early in his career during a stint working for the Royal Ontario Museum and has lived in the village of Ocucaje (300 kilometres south of Lima and 50 kilometres from Huacachina) for 30 years, locating fossils and, when funding can be found, excavating them before the wind sandblasts them to nothing. By turns colourful and jaded, he’s a cross between Indiana Jones and Relic from The Beachcombers. On hearing of Alex’s interest in paleontology, he warns him not to pursue a career in it. “Go study to be a lawyer,” he tells him.

These remains are from the Miocene era when the Earth was warmer, the seas higher and the Andes only just beginning to rise.

Our first stop is a piece of white sandstone covered by a plastic lid that, once removed, reveals a clearly defined whale skull about three metres long. It looks like it might have died last year, but then I remember we are some 10 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. These remains are between eight and nine million years old, from the Miocene era when the Earth was warmer, the seas higher and the Andes only just beginning to rise as the South American tectonic plate collided with the Pacific plate. This desert was a shallow, sandy continental shelf. Absent the competition and predation of giant reptiles since the Cretaceous‑Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago, sea mammals had proliferated and grown large.

For the paleontologist, every fossil poses a new puzzle: In this case, the skull is perfectly preserved, as if trapped in something anoxic – methane, perhaps – while the rest of the animal is obliterated, probably from bacterial activity. Alex gets engaged in the conversation, discussing possibilities. “So there must have been enough oxygen trapped in the lungs and gut for bacteria to survive?”

Fossilized baleen whale remains in the Ocucaje Desert
Fossilized baleen whale remains in the Ocucaje Desert. Until 2 million years ago, the area was a shallow continental shelf.

At our next stop, what at first looks like porous, weathered stones placed in a circle on the bleached sandstone, turn out to be a whole pod of pygmy whales, including adults and juveniles, one of their spines barely protruding from the rock. What trapped them all at once? Sudden entombment in volcanic ash, most likely. We walk another 300 metres down the hillside to a mound on the desert floor. This is the arched spine of a much larger whale, 15 metres at least, from yet another event. No excavation has taken place here – there’s no money. “It could be gone in a few years,” Urbina Schmitt says wistfully. “The wind will destroy it.”

Some of the finds made here include prehistoric seals and a 40‑million‑year‑old “walking” whale.

Now I’m beginning to get it. Taking in the sweep of barren sandstone around us, virtually every bump I can see is a fossil slowly being revealed by the wind. When the remains can no longer support themselves, they too collapse and blow away. Urbina Schmitt’s self‑appointed mission is to identify the more complete or intriguing remains, the conservation and study of which might yield new understanding to science. Some of the major finds made here include prehistoric seals and 40‑million‑year‑old fossils of a “walking” whale.

The fossils we see on this day are all whales – Ocucaje has one of the best assemblages of baleen whale fossils anywhere – but Urbina Schmitt has found dolphins and giant penguins, too. He hints at some as‑yet‑unpublished findings: the somehow preserved cartilaginous skull of a megalodon shark (a kind of supersized great white, now extinct, and known so far only from its teeth) and a leviathan that may have surpassed the contemporary blue whale as the largest animal that ever lived.

Our little convoy returns to the road, where we eat a packed lunch in the barely shade of spindly desert trees, discussing what we’ve seen. The heat is intense, and despite the thrill of discovery – seeing things few tourists stop to see – I’m relieved to hop back in the air‑conditioned truck and bump our way to the village.

Fully warmed to us now, Urbina Schmitt shows us into his “bunker” – a man cave made of logs, reeds and plaster extending from the back of his modest house. As our eyes adjust to the light, books, papers and the dusty trappings of desert expeditions come into focus. He boots up his laptop to show Alex images of some unusual fossils he’s found and links to some of his published works. He tells us of the celebrity paleontologists who have stayed here. (Alex, of course, knows all their names.) Then I notice the walls and ceiling, painted – quite artfully – with the images of prehistoric animals Urbina Schmitt has found over the years: cetaceans, sharks, finfish, shellfish, squid, turtles, diving seabirds – a whole Cenozoic menagerie just strange enough to catch your eye and disorient you. “That’s what I do when I get bored,” he says.

Urbina Schmitt and Alex are still talking shop and exchanging digital coordinates when our driver returns and rescues us from the wilting heat. Before long we are back at our hotel in Huacachina, cooling off in the pool, our heads still swimming with visions of ancient whales.

Lost and Found

These mammals roamed the Pisco Basin millions of years (Ma) ago.

Illustration of a Peregocetus pacificus
  • Peregocetus pacificus, ‑43 Ma —

    This early “walking” whale  had four limbs for moving on land but was more mobile in the water.

Illustration of a Livyatan melvillei
  • Livyatan melvillei, from ‑11,6 Ma to ‑5 Ma —

    An apex predator and ancestor of the sperm whale, Livyatan had 36‑centimetre‑long teeth.

Illustration of an Odobenocetops peruvianus
  • Odobenocetops peruvianus, from ‑5,3 Ma to ‑3,6 Ma —

    This narwhal‑walrus hybrid used a pair of metre‑long tusks to sift for food on the ocean floor.

Illustration of a Thalassocnus natans
  • Thalassocnus natans, ‑6 Ma —

    A semi‑aquatic sloth that grazed on vegetation in shallow water.

 

Partial fossils can be seen at the natural history museum of the National University of San Marcos in Lima.

 

When you go

Department of Ica, Peru

A geoglyph of a monkey found at the Nazca Lines in Peru
   Photo: Prom Peru

Nazca Lines

Up close, these mysterious sky‑facing images of monkeys, hummingbirds, spiders and others made by a pre‑Incan civilization seem small and easily erased: foot‑wide troughs of whitish sand raked free of rocks and native scrub. From the top of the newly upgraded 13‑metre viewing tower beside the Pan‑American Highway, however, the monumental artistry and sheer mystery of their purpose comes into focus. (It was the routing of the highway through the ancient landscape that first prompted calls for the Nazca Lines’ preservation.) To see all of the geoglyphs – including a giant cat just found in October – you can hire a small aircraft.

A cluster of black seabirds with red-rimmed eyes at the Paracas National Reserve in Peru
   Photo: Prom Peru

Paracas National Reserve

The coast in southern Peru is mostly desert, but the Pacific Ocean offshore is one of the most abundant in marine life anywhere, thanks to the deep‑sea churn of the Humboldt Current. A two‑hour boat tour from the seaside village of Paracas takes you to the Ballestas Islands, whose flanks are swarmed by cormorants, boobies and Inca terns. Among the 200‑plus species of seabirds here you will find Humboldt penguins, perched surprisingly high up and away from the water. More charismatic still are the sea lions that crowd the beaches and rocks. Back on the mainland, explore the starkly beautiful landscape by car, bike or on foot, seeking out pristine beaches like the isolated Playa La Mina.

The ruins of Tambo Colorado in front of a wall of mountains in Peru
   Photo: Prom Peru

Tambo Colorado

These ruins of a pre‑Columbian settlement near the modern‑day city of Pisco boast no less impressive masonry and urban design than Machu Picchu. The site was originally one of several prosperous city states that arose from irrigated valleys on the parched Peruvian coast long before the Inca Empire spread down from the mountains. Most of what you see today is an Inca administrative centre built atop the older Indigenous city, with public areas and living quarters giving a vivid sense of how people actually lived in 15th‑century Peru.

An aerial view of the Huacachina oasis in Peru
   Photo: Prom Peru

Huacachina

Strung around an incongruous desert pond surrounded on all sides by towering sand dunes, this holiday oasis near the city of Ica was once a retreat for Peruvian gentility. These days it serves as a base for day trips to nearby attractions like the Paracas National Reserve and draws a fun‑loving set: Late every afternoon dozens of dune buggies motor up into the dunes where visitors try their hand at sandboarding down the slopes or just take in the sunset. Stop in at the Desert Nights Hostel to arrange a desert paleontology tour – possibly to be guided by Mario Urbina Schmitt. At night, ceviche and pisco sours flow on the many restaurant balconies.

Make sure to review government entry requirements before you travel.