The Realm of the Red Penguin: Peru's Dead Sea of Fossils

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Moises Saman / The New York Times / Redux

A researcher for Peru's Natural History Museum rests next to the fossilized skeleton of an ancient seal in the Ocucaje Desert in Ica, Peru.

Roberto Penny Cabrera is a former officer in the Peruvian Navy and still loves the sea, but the ocean that now captures his attention is not wet. In fact, it has been one of the driest places on earth for millions of years.

Penny, 55, is a self-trained authority on a strip of Peru's coastal desert in Ica, 180 miles south of the capital, Lima. The desert was once a shallow sea with abundant marine life, but that ended when the Andes Mountains surged upward. The resulting cataclysm created what is the world's largest cemetery of marine fossils, many poking out of the white sand.

What sets this stretch of Ica desert apart from similar areas is the preservation of more than bone. The discovery last year of a 5-ft.-tall penguin included the first evidence of preserved scales and feathers, letting experts know that the big bird was red instead of black and white like today's smaller version. It died about 36 million years ago. Also recently discovered in this windswept, rolling desert was the skull of a giant whale, dubbed Leviathan melvillei in honor of Moby Dick's creator. The whale stretched nearly 60 ft. and is believed to have fed on other whales. Its jaw is similar to that of modern-day sharks, with rows of top and bottom teeth.

Penny, who calls himself a "finder," said, "It is amazing to see what the ocean was like millions of years ago. I am not a paleontologist, but you don't have to have a degree to know that what we have here can tell us how the ocean worked." He may not have a title, but Penny has the desert in his blood. One of his distant relatives founded the city of Ica in the mid-16th century, and the family has been there since. He first wandered into the desert as a boy, when his parents would take him to a nearby oasis, Huacachina. "We would go to Huacachina, but I was interested in the surrounding desert. It is where I feel free," he said. Those early family excursions turned into a lifelong obsession with Peru's dead sea.

Penny's quest today is to protect the desert, not only safeguarding marine fossils but also burial grounds of Nazca and Paracas cultures, which date back more than 2,000 years, and the area's stunning landscape of ancient seabeds and towering, windblown dunes.

It is an uphill battle.

The rolling dunes around Ocucaje, a small town that serves as a gateway to the desert and lends the arid strip its name, are strewn with skeletons tossed aside by looters digging through burial grounds in search of pottery and world-renowned Paracas textiles. Fossil hunters have chipped away at whale skeletons and decimated shell beds looking for the prized teeth of the megalodon (literally "giant tooth"), giant sharks that once prowled here. "The principal problem in Ocucaje right now is the illegal collection of fossils for scientific or commercial purposes," said José Apolín, a specialist at Peru's Culture Ministry, which just celebrated its first anniversary.

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