13 Aug 2021

Whales and dolphins stuck on inland farm

From Country Life, 9:40 pm on 13 August 2021

Sheep and cattle graze where whales and dolphins once swam 25 million years ago.

Bones from their skeletons are fossilised in cliffs and rocks on Grant Neal's farm at Duntroon in North Otago.

''There's 12 whale and dolphin fossils scattered through one gully and down the next there must be five, so it's awesome how concentrated it is," Grant says.

The area on the farm where the fossils were discovered is an official geo-site in the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

The Geopark Trust is a charitable organisation that tells the story of land and whenua via geo-sites dotted around the area. A geo-site is a place of particular geological interest.  

Waitaki was formed under an ancient sea and is built on the remains of prehistoric creatures from a vanished world.

"The limestone is made from dead sea life, so when their remains fall to the bottom of the ocean, over time it built up layer upon layer and solidifies into this beautiful limestone we see today,"  says Sasha Morriss, a Waitaki Whitestone Geopark geologist.

The Vanished World Centre in Duntroon is a cornerstone of the Geopark. Locally found skeletons, fossils and rocks are showcased in floor and wall displays.

It was opened 21 years ago after Otago University geology professor Ewan Fordyce uncovered significant fossil activity in the district.

Most of his research was conducted on farms and it wasn't long before he had captured the imaginations of landowners.

"Of the 15 signatures that formed the centre's Trust, 12 of them had rural addresses, so I find that amazing that a group of farmers created a museum full of fossils in the middle of nowhere," Vanished World volunteer Mike Gray says.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

The whale bones on Grant Neal's farm, 40km from the sea, are protected by a clear shelter.

To get to the site a public walkway cuts down between two cliffs and into the hidden gully.

Grant says there's even a dolphin skeleton protruding from a stone wall in a farm building.

"It's in the limestone cliff wall that they butted the hay shed up to and you can see all the bones starting to come out of the rock."

Neal purchased the sheep farm recently and sharing its geological history was always his goal.

"As a farmer often you think this is our land and we're not going to share it too much ... but it dawned on us before we even moved here that it's about sharing it. It's a really unique and special place."

Lisa Heinz, Grant Neal, Mike Gray & Sasha Morriss

Lisa Heinz, Grant Neal, Mike Gray & Sasha Morriss Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish-Barnes