Prehistoric Moby Dick Meets the Potomac

Researchers prepare whale fossil found in cliffs of the Potomac for transport
Researchers prepare prehistoric whale fossil found in cliffs along the Potomac for transport

In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab has a single purpose–to find this large, elusive, white whale. He stands on the deck of the whaling ship Pequod calling out, “Ship ahoy! Hast seen the White Whale?” When he and his crew finally spot Moby Dick, the whale escapes after charging the ship and bringing death to his pursuer.

Last month, along the banks of the Potomac River, a six-foot long fossil was removed from the cliffs on the grounds of Stratford Hall in Virginia, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee was born. The fossil weighed approximately 1,000 pounds and was determined to be the skull of a prehistoric whale.

Further testing at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, revealed that the whale would have been at least 25 feet long and was 15 million years old. The manager of Calvert’s paleontology collections, John Nance, said that based on the skull’s size and shape, it has been identified as a type of baleen whale that is now extinct. It’s shape would compare to the modern-day minke whale. Male minke whales average 23 feet long.

Scientists can’t be definite about the whale species until the rest of the fossil is excavated and tested. The remaining skeleton is still within the cliffs of Stratford Hall. These cliffs date back to the Miocene geological epoch spanning from five million to 23 million years ago. The fossil’s age was determined by the Calvert Formation, a geologic formation that scientists have been studying for over a century. By dating layers of rock, dirt, and sediment in the area, the age of the fossil is based in relation to the location of where it was found.

This particular area, along the Potomac, is known to have a lot of marine fossils. Thousands of shark teeth have been discovered in the cliffs, as well as an occasional whale bone. But to find such a large skeleton is very rare.

Sections that have been found, so far, are the lower jaw, isolated vertebrae, rib bones, and the skull. Interns are cleaning the sand and clay off the bones in the museum’s paleontology hall. The excavation is expected to continue for another two weeks.

Stratford Hall was home to four generations of the Lee family. The historic house and grounds are open daily for tours and to walk around the grounds plus any of the six nature trails. It is in the same county where George Washington and James Monroe were born–Westmoreland County.

To learn more about Stratford Hall and the Calvert Marine Museum, please visit their websites listed below.

Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent


Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Quote from Chapter 100. Originally published in 1851.

Calvert Marine Museum

Stratford Hall

One Response to "Prehistoric Moby Dick Meets the Potomac"

  1. Emily Jane Oconnor   August 7, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    That’s trippy. I’m from va


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