If this was a precious fossil, why were they letting me hold it?! Why didn't anyone seem concerned about me dropping it? My thoughts raced. I looked closely at it. It really did look and feel just like an ordinary rock to me, not unlike the ones found in my garden back in California. My confusion contrasted with Federico and the curator's enthusiasm.
Federico put his fingers on grooves in the rock. "See? This is where the claws and palm were." The museum curator pointed to a diorama with a replica of a donkey-sized iguana. The creature who made this footprint roamed 10 million years before the dinosaurs.
"The dinosaurs were like yesterday," Federico has told me many times.
"Do you see the footprint?", Federico asked again. I was tempted to say "Oh, I see now," and move on. I was tired. It was six o'clock in the morning. We'd literally crossed seven time zones the day before, from the Caribbean to Northern Italy. We came here, to Federico and the production crew's home turf in the Dolomites, Northern Italy, to see "rocks" like the one I was holding in my hand. Ages ago these rocks, as I call them fondly, were part of a vivid underwater coral landscape, similar to the reefs we dove in the Caribbean and that I've studied and admired my whole life. But instead of using SCUBA gear, submarines, or underwater cameras to study these ancient reefs, we were lacing up hiking boots, layering on jackets, and grabbing gear from ski shops.
We came to the Dolomites to tell a different story about coral reefs -- not one of dying and bleaching, but one of resilience. Coral, after all, have survived for 500 million years. On that time scale, we humans have been around for a mere blip in time (200,000 years).
Back in California, I've continued to see coral in unlikely places. I see it in the façade of a building in an arid suburb of San Francisco where I am quarantined during COVID. Fossils make our planet what it is. Most are not behind museum glass. Some are polished and clear in marble countertops, or in the hands of fossil hunters, but most are ground and crushed up into unrecognizable formats, to pump into our cars, to mix with concrete for new buildings. The fossil fuels we rely upon are exactly that: fossils.
Our documentary, “The Secret of the Oceans”, premiered in Italy on Christmas Day and showed on the National Geographic Channel in the UK on April 22, Earth Day, after Jane Goodall's special. You can also watch on-demand with a Sky TV subscription (link).