Beached Whales

The title of the DpSU for the 20th of December is Whales in the Desert? The topic is interesting in that I’ve already heard of this find in the context of creationism – it was discussed twice on TWIGO:CP, in TerryH fails geology forever and more briefly in Terry vs The Whale, and inspired a post on We Couldn’t Make This Up.

Now, Mr Hurlbut made a slightly different claim than Mr Thomas does now. To quote the latter blog post:

His argument boils down to the fact that “How did eighty whales wash ashore, half a mile inland, and at an elevation greater even than the height of the Empire State Building?

Much of the criticism directed at TerryH on the RationalWiki page can be summarised by the following quote from Whoover in the first discussion link:

Here’s a site, not too far from the “coastal highway” expansion that uncovered the site. Its elevation is 151 feet. “Whale Hill” must be hella steep. OTOH, if the site were at 13,000 that wouldn’t hurt “evolutionists'” feelings.

(Terry claimed that the Atacama desert is 13,000 feet high, and argued that the fossils were found at a similar height. They almost certainly weren’t, but even if they were they had 7 million years to get there.)

The Atacama desert and surrounding regions

But what am I talking about? We have some whale fossils discovered in the Atacama region as part of an expansion of the Pan-American Highway in 2010. Since October of this year palaeontologists have been hurrying to excavate as many of the fossils as they can in the short period of time they have been given. To quote now the Science Insider article:

The team has found more than 20 complete whale skeletons, and about 80 individual specimens, as well as other types of marine mammals.

So where does Mr Thomas want to go with this? Let’s find out…

Workers expanding a highway in 2010 found fossils of 80 huge whales in desert sandstones in Chile, prompting questions of how they died and why they were so well preserved.

He provides no source for the claim that people are wondering “why they were so well preserved” or even that they were particularly well preserved, beyond there just being lots of them. Additionally, only his link to a CMI article on the subject could be used to support the idea that there is any controversy over how the whales may have died, and the most you can take from that is that we can’t tell if the whales beached or were trapped in a lagoon.

Clearly, a catastrophe must have happened, since so many whales died at once. Just as clearly, the catastrophe must have involved large quantities of fast-moving sand in order to encase the huge animals in sandstone.

Whether you want to call mass whale beachings a catastrophe in and of themselves is up to you, but they do happen fairly regularly and biblical-scale floods are frankly unnecessary to bring them about. As far as I am aware we don’t actually know what the cause of most beachings are, but if they correlated well with the kind of things that creationists propose happened in the Flood I think we would notice. It should be added that the deposition of sandstone-forming sediment requires the water to slow down from a higher speed, but not too quickly or other sediments will deposit at the same time. The kind of thing you might expect from a river flowing into the sea perhaps, but difficult to achieve with a global flood. Plus, no calamity required.

Things that are presented as ‘clear’ rarely are, in the same way that ‘humble opinions’ aren’t. But this goes beyond that.

Construction halted on the highway temporarily, allowing Smithsonian paleontologists to examine the fossils. Since the site may be destroyed when roadwork resumes, the scientists are using laser imaging technology to quickly record the fossils’ 3-D positions in the sandstone so that they can be virtually reproduced “for museums and future study by paleontologists.”

Images from the excavation site show the whale remains close to, and even overlapping, one another. They are gathered in a low spot called the Caldera basin, where water runoff from the continent toward the Pacific Ocean was trapped. The water would have rapidly drained out after depositing the whales and the sand, allowing the carcasses to dry quickly and not decay as the surrounding sand hardened into sandstone and preserved them.

Well there’s your uniformitarian explanation… (Although the water probably didn’t deposit the whales, just the sand on top. If the water was carrying the whales, the whales probably wouldn’t have dropped out with the sand.)

Enlightenment-era notions of slow and gradual geologic processes cannot account for this mass grave. Neither can they explain a separate case in which 300 whales were found buried with land animals, also near the western coast of South America. But a massive watery catastrophe like the Flood of Noah would have had the requisite power to move the amount of sediment and water that formed these massive whale fossil sites.

This other whale find seems to be a favourite for creationists. The abstract at least is filled with YEC-attracting phrases such as “preserved in pristine condition” – “(bones articulated or at least closely associated)” – “rapid burial,” and “Current depositional models do not account for the volume of diatomaceous sediments or the taphonomic features of the whales.” It also says “The 346 whales within ∼1.5 km2 of surveyed surface were not buried as an event, but were distributed uninterrupted through an 80-m-thick sedimentary section,” which somewhat lessens the use to which this can be put by the YECs.

Also interesting is the fact that (at least) the first author of the paper is a YEC himself, but one who “challenges his fellow creationists to use caution when making scientific claims,” which is nice (and something they don’t often do). He apparently favours the idea that the fossils are post-flood, which wouldn’t be all that catastrophic and un-uniformitarian.

I can find no source for the ‘land animals’ element of Mr Thomas’ claim, though again I can’t read past the abstract of the paper, and there is no reason why that would be a problem if they were there.

Genesis 8:3 states, “And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.” Since these whale fossil deposits probably overlie thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks, it stands to reason that much of the underlying rock was formed during the first 150 days of the Flood, as water was carrying sediment onto the continent.

Later in the Flood year, the whales would have been deposited in low-lying areas as waters “abated” from the continents and into the new, deeper ocean basins. This would account not only for the large numbers of remains found in one place, but also for their preservation.

So he’s not supporting the weird only-parts-covered-at-any-one-time Flood idea we saw in Forgive Me If You’ve Heard This One Before the other day? Once again, it would be difficult to engineer a situation where the sediments would deposit correctly in this, more traditional model of a Global Flood.

ScienceInsider reported that researchers “are striving to learn how the site was formed and how the marine mammals died.” The first place they should look is Genesis.

This is the problem with creationists when it comes down to it – they think that Genesis is helpful in scientific inquiry. Tell me, what does it say that could help us with this question? It says that the waters go up, the waters go down, and something about a dove and some leaves or something, but nothing that could enlighten us about how these whales actually died. The creationists may build their interpretations on top of Genesis, but they extrapolate hugely – the bible doesn’t tell us all that much that would be helpful even if all it said was true.

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3 thoughts on “Beached Whales

  1. I’ve been watching this story with some interest the past month. I have made several comment on other blogs as well responding mostly to creationists arguments. I have found it very interesting that this whale fossil find is receiving so much interest when a report of another spectacular fossil find (juvenile dino fossils in a nest) has received so much less attention by YECs.

    The original news release that sparked this surge of whale fossil interest included a title that was unfortunate. They speak of the mystery of the fossils as if it were unexplainable. I think the title of the articles about these fossils have been a bit misleading and so it is understanding that some creationists have picked up on these fossils as possible evidence of a global flood. However, I think that the mystery that is mentions is more spinning for the press than it is really a mystery. In fact I have some reason to believe that the people responsible for curating the find actually have a very good idea of how to explain the fossil deposit but are milking the story to heighten the drama so that the manuscripts they are working on to describe these fossils will have a much greater impact when they are released next year. If they hadn’t make this a public story the descriptions of these fossils likely would not have received much attention because the story will not be that dramatic. So what is going on here. Some additional information makes it seem less likely that young earth creationists can hold this out as an example of a global flood. Below is some of what I wrote on my blog about his particular fascinating deposit having done a little research on the location.

    First it should be noted that the whale fossils at the other famous site are found in diatomaceous earth which is rock which consists of high numbers of diatoms. Even Brand who as you point out is a YEC himself admits this and tries to explain away the presence of diatoms. But, diatoms are single celled algae that produce silicon walls and thus are very easily preserved. They are found in fresh water and salt water but large deposits are usually associated with shallow ocean basins where diatoms “bloom” in the waters above and die with the silicon “shells” falling to the ocean floor. If whales have died and their bones are resting on the ocean floor the diatoms can accumulate and bury the bones creating a glass tomb for the bones while they fossilize. In the situation here there is a layer of diatomacious earth covering this region that is filled with whale, dolphin, seal and other fossil bones. While young earth creationists are claiming this is the result of whales being trapped in a global flood. These bones suggest the opposite. Underneath them are thousands of feet of sediments and then near the very top is this layer of diatoms which would only collect in thick (several feet) layers like this where there was relatively placid water above and falling diatoms rather than mixed up sediments being deposited quickly. The fact that all the whales in in the same layer of rock across this area also suggests a particular incident in some period of time or several similar events rather than whales being caught in a large global catastrophe that is laying down all the layers of rock at the same time. Another possibility is these animals were cut off in a lagoon that experienced a massive algal bloom (red tide) that killed all them at once creating a mass grave with an abundance of diatomacous alga remains as well.

    I should also note that whales trapped in an inlet and dying in mass is not even unusual today. I was just at the marine mammal meeting and saw some incredible pictures of hundreds of whales that died after being trapped when an inlet froze up on on them not allowing them to escape and then when the ice finally covered the entire inlet the whales were suffocated and died by the hundreds. Apparently this happens nearly every year at some point in the arctic. In these cases there are hundreds of whales deposited in the very cold waters which willl preserve them long enough to get covered with sediments and algal fall. So even presently we have situations where whales are being deposited in large quantities in one layer of sediment. It can’t be far-fetched to imagine it has happened in the past.

    One other point to make here. The whales, dolphin and seal fossils found her are all fossils that appear very similar to modern day marine mammals. Young earth creationists barminology (the study of “kinds”) has often suggested that whales all evolved from a couple of original whales kinds and that the diversity today is the result of diversification (ie. very fast evolution except they don’t call it evolution) of those original kinds into the new environments that existed after the flood (like arctic whales and deep sea whales). That these fossil whales look like modern whales I would think should give the bariminologists pause with respect to saying that these whales were caught in a global flood because these are presumably highly adapted/evolved whales rather than the original kinds of whales which were smaller and had more leg bones etc… Just another example of inconsistencies within the creationists literature. Frequently theories are put forth to explain one piece of evidence without considering the impact on other theories within their own worldview.

  2. Pingback: Flood Stories « Eye on the ICR

  3. Pingback: ATACAMA walvis massagraf | Tsjok's blog

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