Sunday, April 7, 2013

Oregon coast trip with Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson, part 3: Newport Aquarium, Sea Lion Caves, and Finale

Sorry for the delay in posting (again); it's been busy, and I have a couple of new papers I really ought to talk about (and soon). Stay tuned!

On our third day in Oregon, it was a bit too rainy to try visiting field localities again, so we spent some time at Kirk and Ray’s cabin at the Sitka Center discussing fossil marine vertebrates from the Pacific coast. Ray wanted to illustrate marine faunas from three different periods for their book, so we chatted for a few hours about how best to divide those faunas. If I remember correctly, I think we settled on the late Oligocene assemblage represented by strata from the Newport Embayment, the middle Miocene as represented by the Sharktooth Hill Bonebed, and latest Miocene and Pliocene assemblages as represented by the Purisima/Capistrano/San Mateo and San Diego Formations. We discussed for a while how to illustrate some of the stranger fossil marine mammals, such as aetiocetids, the walrus Gomphotaria, the bony toothed bird Pelagornis, and others. After a few hours, we visited a rock shop in Lincoln City and explored the town a little bit. We had lunch at “Pronto Pups”, which claimed to have invented the corn dog in 1946. Kirk looked this up later that day, and apparently there are older claims (Carl and Neil Fletcher, Texas State Fair, 1938-1942; Pronto Pup vendor at Minnesota State Fair in 1941; Cozy Dog Drive In, Illinois, 1946; and Hot Dog On a Stick in Santa Monica, 1946). I’ve never really liked corn dogs so the experience was lost on me anyway.

Frank's blue whale mandible cast.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at the Sitka Center where Frank Boyden showed us his workshop and some more of his amazing stuff he’s made and accumulated over the years. One thing which was in his garage was something he put together for a party at his house: a simple machine using a huge pipe and special lighting to simulate the rare optical phenomena called the “green flash” – the greenish flash appears just after the sun sets on rare occasions. The viewer sits at one end of the tube and drapes a blackout cloth over them, while a cut out at the other end is slid down (with a light source behind) by Frank. He took us to a (large) shed, and showed us a cast of a blue whale mandible he made sometime in the 1990’s – it was just shy of 20 feet long or so. It was originally intended to be cast in bronze for the Oregon Coast aquarium in Newport, but things didn’t work out.

Beautiful bronze bird head door handles at the aquarium, done by Frank.

An impressive feat for such a heavy animal - the adult male California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus).

On our last day in Oregon, we left early to make a visit to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. Frank made some amazing sculptures at the aquarium, which Sarah and I had previously seen and appreciated on a visit in 2009, long before meeting Frank. The sculptures include large blocks of rocks in bronze – some which appear to have been large concretions found on the shoreline – with whale bones, mussels, barnacles, fish, and other sea creatures. Several years prior, Ray had an exhibit at the aquarium, so we visited a few old friends and got a behind the scenes tour – including feeding and petting a giant Pacific octopus. The octopus was pretty friendly, and according to staff, a bit of a troublemaker; an awesome sign was posted on the side of the tank saying “Do not taunt the octopus”. I found the suckers to be surprisingly powerful – one was stuck on one of my fingertips and after a few seconds of trying to pull my hand away it began to hurt a little. At one point Sarah was trying to photograph the octopus and it squirted a couple liters of water up at us – drenching my jacket and Sarah’s pants, and camera. Even though it was saltwater her camera was alright. A few minutes later we watched the staff feed the hagfish – which, as a taphonomist, was pretty awesome. Lastly, we went outside and got to meet their adult male sea lion up close and personal. We all got kissed by the sea lion, which was pretty awesome – Kirk took his on the lips, which was hilarious. It was great being that close to one of the animals I study.

You've been warned!


The octopus, pre-squirting. So cool! Enteroctopus dofleini.

Incredible sculpture by Frank - whale bones emerging from the rock. In the photo on the right, try and spot one rib that's 'different'.

Have I ever looked so happy?

After leaving the aquarium, we left Newport and continued south for some more sea lion goodness at Sea Lion Caves just north of Florence, Oregon. The operators of Sea Lion Caves boast that it is the World’s largest sea cave, and the only mainland rookery of Steller’s sea lions in North America. The cave itself is formed by two cross-cutting dikes at a roughly 90 degree angle, which are weaker than surrounding rocks and have been preferentially eroded. The cave actually has three openings: the large west facing opening, and smaller north and south facing openings. The north opening grants a unique view of the Heceta Head lighthouse. The cave was discovered in 1880 by William Cox, who piloted a small boat into the large western opening on a calm day. After watching waves explode into the entrance for only a few minutes I decided that Mr. Cox must have been criminally insane. Apparently he visited the cave a number of times and on one occasion got stranded by rough weather, and he shot and killed a sea lion for sustenance. Cox purchased the land in 1887. In 1927 the property was purchased from the Cox family, and subsequently three gentlemen by the names of Clanton, Houghton, and Jacobsen thought to turn it into an attraction and began construction of a walkway to the north entrance; by the 1940’s it had become a popular attraction, and in 1961 an elevator was added – the same you take down to the cave nowadays. The cave houses a large number of Steller’s sea lions, one of my favorite pinnipeds – and a difficult one to spot in California waters. My first Steller’s sighting was at the Santa Cruz Lighthouse in 2007 – I spotted two gigantic males fighting for territory on the small rock lying ~ 100 meters south of the lighthouse; they dwarfed the female California sea lions which normally haul out on that rock. Sarah and I had first visited Sea Lion Caves on a long road trip from San Francisco to Astoria and then eastward back to Montana – but we had visited in August, and there were no Steller’s sea lions in the cave. We tried looking from some overlooks north along highway 101 towards Heceta Head, but only saw California sea lions. It was a major disappointment for us.

The main cavern at Sea Lion Caves; the main west entrance is to the right, and the small south entrance is in the right center. If this isn't a real life "Goonies" moment, I don't know what is.

The north entrance, with Heceta Head barely visible through the fog. Check out that surf!

When we visited this time, however, it was in February and practically a goddamned circus – it was smelly, loud, and wonderful. Every sort of bark, growl, snort, sneeze, and other audible bodily function contributed to a bizarre chorus. When you get out of the elevator, you walk into a small chamber with a viewing platform, raised above the main cave, separated from the sea lions by a chain link fence. There’s low lighting, and there are numerous signs telling visitors to stay quiet, and a guard to make sure people don’t harass the sea lions – along with plenty of information panels, and even a subfossil adult make Steller’s sea lion skeleton surrounded by a railing. Unfortunately, somebody stole the skull many years ago.

 An adult female Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) skeleton mounted on display. It used to be in a cabinet (and is one of the most popular results on google images for searching "sea lion skeleton", but the lighting is arguably more awesome now.

After Sea Lion Caves, we said our goodbyes to Kirk and Ray, and began our trip back down south to San Francisco. After all, we had only a week and a half until we would get on a plane and fly to New Zealand, and we still had plenty of packing to do. We only had two important stops left: we had to stop at a Pleistocene marine mammal locality, and make a quick pitstop at Prehistoric Gardens to take a couple ridiculous photos. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a damn thing at the fossil site, so I headed back to the car where Sarah was taking a well deserved nap, and continued to Brookings, Oregon, where we got a delicious seafood dinner, and eventually stayed the night in Crescent City.

Fog rolling in, and the sun going down at the fossil site. By the time I got back to the car it was damn near dark, and I had to call Sarah to turn on the headlights so I could see where the road up the hill was.

 A large cluster of Pleistocene barnacles (Balanus) at the locality.


A quick stop at Prehistoric Gardens allowed for a hilariously bogus Jurassic Park like photo.

Roosevelt Elk in Humboldt County, right off Highway 101.

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