For more than a decade, Joe Cocke has been the go-to guy at Point Vicente Interpretive Center.
Recreation specialist and supervisor Ann Zellers and Emily Rodin rely on Cocke for everything from curation of exhibits to mounting of whale skeletons to docent training to even a little carpentry. He once made a ocean-themed outboard for selfies for PVIC's Whale of a Day exhibit.
Cocke is at home at PVIC. That's because growing up in Rolling Hills, his father collected whale bone fossils.
“I developed an interest in fossils because I was always around them,” Cocke said, “and when I grew up, working with them became my career.”
For thirty-three years, Cocke worked at the National History Museum of Los Angeles (NHMLA) in the education, animal habitats and paleontology departments. While there, he developed two advanced specialties—collecting fossils and mounting skeletons.
When the museum offered Cocke early retirement, he took it.
“Why not spend my time hiking around the Palos Verdes hills instead of driving to Los Angeles?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. “I’ve always been interested in Palos Verdes, so when the opportunity came up, I began volunteering at Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC) and focused on Palos Verdes fossils.”
Since he's been a PVIC volunteer, Cocke was focused on the two fossil ages on Palos Verdes Peninsula: the Miocene and the Pleistocene. The Miocene fossils are between 14 to 16 million years old and the Pleistocene fossils are less than a million years old.
The Miocene fossils are found in the white rocks (Altamira Shale) around the peninsula, while the Pleistocene fossils are more often found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
“About a million years ago sea beds started pushing up out of the ocean making a small island with a sea cliff around it," said Cocke. "Over time, they pushed up more and formed another sea cliff. Today there are 13 sea cliffs which formed Palos Verdes, each one with fossils from their era."
Miocene rocks, explained Cocke, are along the beaches in the coves and he takes groups down there to explore.
"If we find fossils of interest, of course we give them to the museum or I bring them to the Interpretive Center," said Cocke. "Lots of times we’ll find a rock with a piece of bone in it which is pretty. It has no scientific value, however they’re fun to find and people like them for paperweights or doorstops."
In fact, Cocke himself made a huge discovery hiking in Lunada Canyon in 2017.
At the bottom of a 25-foot cliff, he discovered a bone sticking out of the dirt.
“I dug it out and identified it as a pelvis from an extinct bison," said Cocke, who added he knew it was significant because bison died out more than 12,000 years ago.
"When I cleaned the bone at home, I found butcher marks and cut marks, which meant that someone had butchered the animal," added Cocke. "That was very exciting because it meant that Paleoindians were here more than 12,000 years ago. The bone was dated at 13,500 years—probably the oldest date of humans in California.”
The Paleoindians were nomads, Cocke explained, probably in a small family group.
"They killed the bison in the bottom of the canyon and scraped the meat from its bones,” he said.
Cocke emphasized the importance of preserving fossils such as the bison bone he discovered.
"I’m always trying to help catalog and maintain the collection," he said. "The collection is so important. Fossils really have to be preserved, otherwise they’re gone forever.”
He is also the author of several books including “The Fossils of the Palos Verdes hills. His books are available on Amazon.
Cocke lives in Redondo Beach, but he spends most of his time on the peninsula.
“I just love this area,” he said. “Where else can you see a whale on your drive home? We have a place out in the desert and we travel around a lot, but I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”