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Flashback: A Page Out of CMA History

Picture it: The year is 1971, Raquel Welch is all the rage, bushy sideburns are in and hippies abound. San Pedro is on the map, but hasn’t made a name for itself, and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium was the much smaller Cabrillo Marine Museum housed in the Bath House on Outer Cabrillo Beach. Even though 1971 started just like any other year, things were about to change…

On December 26, 1970, Paul Kirkland, a paleontology student at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College, discovered a large bone as he was searching for fossil sea shells in an area close to where The Home Depot on Gaffey is today. He spent the next two days digging with Bill Samaras, a consultant for Cabrillo Marine Museum, and together they discovered a much larger skeleton…it was a whale! And not just any whale, it was a huge gray whale skeleton estimated to be about 100,000 years old, in excellent condition and one of the most complete ever found. The gray whale skeleton was dubbed Raquel, after Raquel Welch, because the bones were “well-stacked” just like Raquel, albeit in a different manner.

During January of 1971, as local experts realized the significance of what they were dealing with, excitement started to build and excavating the gray whale skeleton became a community affair. Staff with the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum arrived on the scene; Bill Samaras, also a science teacher at Carson High School, brought his students to help; Vincent Thomas, San Pedro’s State Assemblyman helped clear red tape with the city and county; John Olguin, the Director of Cabrillo Marine Museum lent support and enthusiasm; and community members donated food and supplies.

According to Mary Samaras, Bill Samaras’ widow, some people stayed at the site for days. “They had junk furniture, they built a little bonfire and it was a 24-hour a day happening,” said Mary. “The town got really excited about the find of the gray whale. And that’s how San Pedro became known as a whale of a town, with bumper stickers on all the cars.”

Mary credits the “San Pedro, Whale of a Town” slogan and bumper stickers to John Olguin and Bill Samaras. Raquel also inspired John and Bill to work with Vincent Thomas to secure funding for a new Cabrillo Marine Museum building to house the whale skeleton. Thanks to their collaboration, $3 million in funding came through, which eventually funded the new Cabrillo Marine Museum designed by Frank Gehry that opened in 1981.

When the excavation was finished on February 2, 1971, the skeleton was removed by the Los Angeles City Harbor Department with a 30-ton crane and trucked to Los Angeles County Natural History Museum where her bones still reside today. Raquel never made it back to Cabrillo, but she brought a community together, gave San Pedro a new identity and jump started the next phase of Cabrillo Marine Aquarium’s development. She was a whale of a find!

Note: A big thanks to Mary Samaras for filling in many details of this story and for providing copies of the field notes taken by Joe Cōcke who worked for the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.


Post Date: Tuesday, February 28, 2012

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