Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Not-So-Rotten Day at Rotten Point: Part II

(In Part I of this two-part series, I related how our field party, while scouting the Victoria coast on June 22, was confronted with the horror of an inadequate outcrop, which necessitated drastic measures: hiking off-trail to reach a more substantial outcrop. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen)

It turned out that the bush-bashing needed to reach the main outcrop at Rotten Point was well worth the effort, although I will not pretend to speak for my field companions. Within only 10 minutes or so, I found many small, invertebrate trace fossils (mostly burrows) in the vertical cliff, and my ever-eager apprentice, Greg Denney, along with the keen-eyed Ruth, likewise spotted more. One of these trace fossils, however, was one I had not seen anywhere else in the Cretaceous of Victoria after nearly a month of field work. (Wish I could show it to you now, but we have that little thing in science called “peer review” that I like to respect.)

Avast! There be trace fossils in these Cretaceous rocks! Prepare to be described! Arrr! (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

So I stayed behind to document it and other trace fossils there – aided by my faithful field assistant, Ruth – while our three companions scouted ahead to the east, to Rotten Point proper, which was where the outcrop and its broken bits projected into the sea.

From about 200 meters (650 feet) away, Ruth and I watched Greg, Mike, and Tom sit down onto some rocks and reach into their packs for sandwiches. Ah yes, that hallowed tradition in field geology when one nearly forgets the passage of the morning, only to be reminded by your growling stomach: time for a field lunch! After performing some tricky moves over huge, slick boulders along the shore, we soon joined them, and then enjoyed a fantastic show of massive waves smash against the rocks just below us.

Let’s find a nice, quiet, peaceful place for a field lunch, shall we? Oh, this spot looks lovely! What, you think those waves are a little too close? Nonsense! Would you like a cuppa tea?

Ruth then snapped a photo of us looking prayerful at lunch, but I was actually explaining how burrowing bivalves move, and what sorts of trace fossils such behaviors might leave in the geologic record.

Showing reverence for trace fossils made by burrowing bivalves, a common practice in The Church of Ichnology. Notice also that Mike Hall (right) is living up to his nickname “Sandwich Hand,” which he earned while doing field work with me on the North Slope of Alaska in 2007. But that is another story. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

So with sustenance and entertainment out of the way, we considered how to get out of our present location while also accessing more Cretaceous rocks just to the east of us. Why not just backtrack, retracing our steps taken to get down to that spot? Well, in a word, no. After the hard scrabble through coastal scrub and otherwise rough terrain to get where we were, no one suggested backtracking, even as a joke. This meant we would have to go around Rotten Point on the marine platform. Remember the huge waves mentioned previously? Those potential impediments did not magically diminish as soon as we made our decision, and would have to be taken into full consideration.

Timing and teamwork would be essential for achieving our goal. Although contrived TV shows in the U.S. often laud a romanticized ideal of “rugged individualism,” in most real situations the adoption of this attitude is hopelessly naïve and downright stupid. (I know, what a big shock that “reality” shows often have very little basis in the commodity they claim to reflect.) Nine times out of ten, you make it through such tough situations in the field through mateship: setting aside heroics and just watching out for your field companions by living attentively and unselfishly in the present.

The rock platform extended a thin lip of support over the ocean, with a slightly incised, v-shaped gap (one long step across) and about 10 meters (33 feet) of air in between the rock and ocean. One misstep, and it would be a quick descent to the water. Which would be fine if we were all outfitted with scuba gear, neoprene wetsuits, and dive masks. Instead, we were carrying field packs, wearing heavy boots, and a most of us had donned stylish hats (look for that picture at the end).

For added ballast, my pack contained a first-aid kit, water bottle, digital calipers, and an emergency blanket, the last of which would be great for keeping someone warm if they were pulled out of the ocean alive, which in this case was not likely to happen.

Backpacks filled with field gear make for poor flotation devices. I’m just saying… (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

I briefly thought about my digital camera in its small case and slung on a strap across my torso, and wondered if the memory card would still store and transfer photos of my newly found trace fossils after a good dunking, just in case someone else later found my kelp-wrapped camera without me. After all, science must go on, mishaps aside.

Someone had to go first. Greg did, as he had the greatest amount of experience at both getting safely across Victorian coastal outcrops and guiding people on such challenging terrain. So he easily went across the gap. For him, this really was a piece of cake, unlike other metaphorical confectionaries we had already been served earlier that day. Mike Hall, the oldest member of our party (72 years young), went next. His many years of geological field experience in Tasmania and other parts of the world meant this was no big deal to him either. So a few well-placed steps, along with a helping hand from Greg, placed him on the other side, too.

Now it was Ruth’s turn, and as she glanced down at the roiling ocean through the window provided by a lack of rock, she burst into laughter. “Is that nervous laughter I hear?” Greg asked her. “Yes!”, she responded immediately. (At the time, I did not know that Greg had also told her earlier about the 5-meter (16-foot) long great white sharks that prowl the waters just offshore, which likely would elicited a high-pitched giggle from me, too.) But having never done anything quite like this before, she did not know enough to be as petrified as the rocks around her, and went into decisive motion. With our encouragement and Greg and Mike lending a hand or two on the other side, she made it there quite handily, and waved to me from the other side, relief suffusing her face.

A nonverbal acknowledgement from Ruth of having just overcome a geologically and oceanographically posed challenge. And that’s Dinosaur Cove in the background. “Pretty cool” is the colloquial phrase that comes to mind.

Tom was the opposite of Ruth in experience on the Victoria coast, having done this sort of thing many, many times, so he crawled over on all fives, with his butt as his anchor. Again, Greg and Mike coaxed him over, and all was well; the relief he wore was more veiled, but still there.

I was last, and although I could have just jumped across, that would have been exceedingly idiotic, which I can be without much effort, but felt it wasn’t appropriate this time. Instead, I took slow, methodical, and tiny steps, angling my feet and body into the outcrop to my left to engage more friction. (Oh, how boring our lives would be without friction, for which we should give thanks every day.) Although the wet sandstone seemed free of slick algal films, I knew that appearances were not everything, and was taking nothing for chance. Ten seconds, and I was over, too. No worries, mate.

Amazingly, we were all now in Dinosaur Cove. Rotten Point marks the westernmost boundary of this small embayment named by Tom Rich back in 1980, which became the site for some of the most significant dinosaur discoveries not just in Victoria, but the rest of Australia. Nonetheless, we could not dwell on this fact for long, as we still had to make our way through house-sized boulders to the marine platform in the cove interior, the safest place in the cove.

The passage to safety in Dinosaur Cove through a “cave” made by two massive boulders. Note my field companions ahead of me, inspecting the outcrop for bones and trace fossils. Or are they just shadows on the wall of the “cave”?

Nearly everyone noticed small invertebrate trace fossils along the way and pointed them out to me, and I made sure to document these as well. The trace of a dig-site volunteer was also there, telling us about the presence of a “Fossil Rock.” I was informed by Tom Rich that this was the trace of Helen Wilson, and was probably rendered in the late 1980s. So if you’re reading this, Helen, good on you for leaving such a long-lasting trace!

A fossil is normally also a rock, but a rock is not always a fossil. Please discuss amongst yourselves, but not for too long.

Our way out was up from Dinosaur Cove was on a rock face on the well-worn route used by thousands of dig-site volunteers and visitors to Dinosaur Cove since the mid-1980s, then along an trail that was overgrown in places, clear in others. Just like our day in the field, and just like life, I guess. At the end of the trail was our field vehicle, and we all happily posed for pictures, grateful that our camaraderie had gotten one another through the rough spots, with a little bit of science coming out of it, too. Best of all, we had even kept our respective hats. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A happy end to a demanding day in the field, helped considerably by the forcefulness of the sign, which also prevented any accidental shootings. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

No comments:

Post a Comment