Updated: Aug 7, 2021
The Sea Dragon
at Berlin, Nevada
You don’t go around the world looking for movie locations in Gabbs, Nevada. Oh wait, Jonathan Demme did a few years before winning a best director Oscar for Silence of the Lambs. Following the footsteps of a lead character, Demme traveled to Gabbs to film Melvin and Howard, the movie acclaimed director P.T. Anderson (There Will be Blood) told me ranked as his favorite from Nevada (aside, perhaps, from the one we worked on in Reno, Hard Eight).
But other than serving as a one-time home for Melvin Dumar, the man who claimed Howard Hughes left him a fortune, Gabbs’ lacks international recognition, and its importance as a visitor destination appeals primarily to those seeking byways even more desolate than nearby Highway 50, the official “Loneliest Highway in America.” A mining company town, Gabbs shrank to a community of less than 300 according to the 2010 census, so most travelers just pass by on the way to someplace else. An exception comes for the annual “fall crawl” when tarantulas migrate there, but spider numbers rarely get added to visitor count sheets.
And yet I felt excited to wave at Gabbs because it meant I headed towards a long-time bucket list destination—Nevada’s Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park. I always meant to go there during my 20+ years working for the State of Nevada as a film commissioner promoting popular and obscure locations to the production industry. Yet in all that time, I never ventured up the 20-mile road beyond Gabbs.
After all, no one sent my office any scripts about a bunch of late 1800s German prospectors who found less than $1 million worth of gold and silver in Nevada. When movie producers called regarding ghost towns, they asked for well-preserved examples that could pass as period communities without requiring much set decorating. Berlin never fit the bill since most of its original 75 structures disappeared. The town survives in “arrested decay,” just a few scattered buildings gradually falling apart.
Similarly, no one chased down a story about the fossil hunt leading to Dr. Siemon Muller’s 1928 discovery of ichthyosaur remains about two miles up a dirt road from Berlin. Apparently, miners knew about similar bones since skeletal parts proved common in the area, whose current Basin and Range desert status belies its past as a water laden ocean.
Excavations in the 1950s, headed by University of California-Berkeley’s Charles Camp, revealed nearly 40 sea-going creatures, along with the decade’s largest finned example of the reptile whose long, serrated beak of a mouth and large paddles make it a suitable stand-in for Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. The find suits naturalist and documentarian David Attenborough’s style, but it came too early for his cameras. Plus, while the area once boasted the biggest-known skeleton, recent digs eclipse it, as Attenborough details in an episode of Nature called “The Sea Dragon.”
“Having the second biggest ichthyosaur fossil in the world is kind of like having the second biggest ball of string,” said former ranger Mike, who opened the park’s Fossil House on a special Covid-era tour.
My husband Fred and I took this tour as an impromptu whim while returning home on U.S. 50 from Ely to Reno. A sign west of Austin and another east of Middlegate points to the state park and its reptiles, listing the distance as 56 miles.
“I’ve always wanted to see that,” we say every time we pass the signs.
The signs provoke Fred’s geologic fascination with paleontology, while my longtime enchantment regarding dinosaur movies and the Loch Ness Monster spring up. Our shared interest in old things helped support us as university students when we earned money by using our youthful, clear eyesight plus a set of embroidery needles to scrape away shale and reveal the bones of fossilized fish that our friend sold.
These miniscule fish might go unnoticed by a 55-foot ichthyosaur, but the little guys infused us with curiosity about all prehistoric sea creatures. Still, 56 miles each way off “The Loneliest Highway in America” always seemed like a travel version of the buffet syndrome, where adding “just one more” item turns a pleasant opportunity into over-stuffed misery. But this journey offered the luxury of extra time for a relaxed side trip.
With the Covid-19 pandemic in full swing and closing many facilities, we called ahead and left a message at the park’s ranger station, figuring nothing would happen. If no one could open the Fossil House, we would scrap the visit and get home early. Why drive two hours out of our way just to look at the park’s iconic outdoor ichthyosaur reproduction (and major photo op) without the chance to see the bones that inspired it?
“At least we tried,” said Fred, and I smiled in anticipation of arriving hours ahead of our 6 p.m. commitment that evening.
And yet, partway into our drive, flukes as big as an ichthyosaur’s fin splashed. Rural Nevada’s intermittent lack of cell phone service disappeared at a summit, just as a ranger returned our call. Our genuine interest inspired special treatment—yes, someone (Mike Dinauer, as it turned out) would unlock the Fossil House and take us inside. We would see more than that life-sized carving of a 50+foot, big-eyed ichthyosaur.
Inside the Fossil House, we acknowledged that an ichthyosaur encased in a mound of dirt fails to spawn the awe-inspiring spectacle of Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex who looms full scale at Chicago’s Field Museum. Sue stands tall and generates profit-making “plush” toys and other souvenirs. While Nevada’s Icky (a possible catchy name for the fossil) misses out on 3-D magnificence and the quake-inducing reputation of a T-Rex, the beast warrants respect. Imagining ourselves in its territory, Fred and I knew for certain we would swim away in absolute terror if we happened upon a 55-foot ichthyosaur during one of our snorkeling adventures. Well, given that it takes me nearly an hour to manage one mile in a pool, swimming away appears an unlikely escape from a creature that clocked 22-miles an hour.
With ocean habitat receding into desert, ichthyosaurs transformed into Nevada’s official “state fossil” designation. On a broader distribution level, my late friend Eric McClary of Great Basin Brewery named his most popular selling beer after the reptile (you can order an “Icky” at various bars or buy a six-pack in regional stores).
The prestige of serving as State Fossil or decorating the label of a tasty brew commemorates the inherent fascinating qualities ichthyosaurs display. Among them:
* More than one species existed, ranging in size from brook trout to RV dimensions.
*The name derives from Greek words meaning “Fish” and “Lizard” since ichthyosaurs qualify as reptiles
*They lived at the same time as dinosaurs 200 million years ago.
*Unlike most reptiles, they gave live birth—proven by the discovery of pregnant ichthyosaurs.
*You can’t tell girls ichthyosaurs from boys unless you find a pregnant one
The display generates multiple questions. Would ichthyosaurs exhibit crocodilian or tiger shark hunger for us? Sharp teeth seem designed to crunch on mollusks rather than people, and paleontologists theorize the creatures preferred fish and squid. Of course, no humans lived during the reptile’s existence, but Jurassic World screenwriters envisioned an ichthyosaur style creature showing a hearty appetite for a mini-sub and crew in the 2018 blockbuster Fallen Kingdom franchise entry.
Lots of theorizing goes on about ichthyosaurs and their habits, including how Nevada’s batch of nearly 40 died so close together. Years ago, the hypothesis involved a mass beaching, as whales sometime do. Now, some experts blame a toxic algae bloom, while others point to warming sea temperatures. Or how about a kraken-giant octopus: Carson City’s Nevada Appeal wrote that idea up in 2011.
Whatever the cause, a treasure trove emerged in Berlin, Nevada—not gold, not silver, but the remnants of a captivating prehistoric era, one that fascinates on screen and in person.
Icky Images on Screen (Projects to enhance an Ichthyosaur Park visit)
Ammonite, with Kate Winslet breaking ground with ichthyosaurs and Saoirse Ronin. In a field dominated by men, real life fossil hunter Mary Anning earned international fame for her finds along the Jurassic coast of southern England in the early 1800s. Whether or not her forward thinking included a torrid affair with a young female lodger remains unproven, which undermines the movie’s “based on a true story” conceit. Well-acted and gorgeously lensed, the story follows genre cliches satirized in Saturday Night Live’s skit Period Lesbian Movie featuring Carrey Mulligan and Kate McKinnon. The spoof proves accurately hilarious but contains no ichthyosaurs.
Melvin and Howard, 1980, with a former Gabbs resident rescuing a zillionaire. The closest settlement to the Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park, Gabbs offers a couple of travel basics—a diner and gas pump. The community gained international recognition when the so-called “Mormon Will” in Salt Lake City left 1/16th of Howard Hughes estate to “Melvin DuMar of Gabbs, Nevada.” The will’s many misspellings and inconsistencies led to a jury proclaiming it a forgery, but the story gained worldwide media attention, which in turn led to a film production company arriving in Nevada to make Melvin and Howard. Like the unorthodox event that inspired it, the resulting movie is both odd and intriguing. Rather than worry about facts, the Oscar-winning screenplay finds truth regarding United States culture and schemes to get rich quick. The film also features an Oscar winning performance by Mary Steenburgen.
Mineral Monday: Ichthyosaur, 2019 with Vera Van der Linden explaining her fascination with Nevada’s official State Fossil. Produced for the Mackay School of Mines’ Keck Museum at the University of Nevada-Reno, the series explores various rock related features of the state. A highlight comes with Van der Linden, who like many kids, adores dinosaurs, and eruditely expresses her special fondness for ichthyosaurs. She enhances the piece with her own animated drawings. A finalist in the 2020 Sci-On Film Festival best documentary shorts category, the project shows up on YouTube.
Missing Link, 2019, with an explorer discovering the Loch Ness Monster. Ichthyosaur influence and impact shows up only briefly in this entertaining Oscar-nominated animated feature, but the creature’s presence indicates its lasting cinematic legacy. Many other movies deal more directly with “Nessie,” including The Water Horse, which plays to kids’ fascination with paleo life forms. Though no one ever found a real Loch Ness Monster, many experts suspect ichthyosaurs, or their kin, inspired the legend.
The Sea Dragon, 2018 with Nature Host David Attenborough studying new finds along England’s Jurassic coast. A fossil fan since childhood, the acclaimed naturalist participates in an elaborate dig to preserve a newly discovered species of ichthyosaur. A forensic investigation results as the team tries to figure out how this creature lost its head and died. Though Attenborough never mentions Nevada’s claim to ichthyosaur fame, his program provides extensive information about the reptiles and their lifestyles using detailed computer-generated re-creations.
Jurassic World, 2015 with an ichthyosaur style creature on hand to entertain visitors at a dinosaur theme park. Entries in the Jurassic Park/World franchise focus on hungry raptors, but ichthyosaurs come to mind with scenes involving a mosasaurus. A separate species from ichthyosaurs, mosasaours evolved later but look similar and lived in oceans. In a parody of Sea World killer whale shows, the Jurassic World reptile adds humor to the adventure by giving a nod to Jurassic Park/Jaws director Steven Spielberg when it leaps out of its tank to chomp down a great white shark that looks miniscule in comparison. The whole franchise celebrates and contributes to the fascination with prehistoric creatures demonstrated by kids throughout the world.
(+The park qualifies as a daytrip from Reno, requiring a 3-hour drive each way.
++I found an ichthyosaur plush online, but it looks just like a dolphin and costs $56)