Mike’s love of dinosaurs started when he volunteered at Cape Otway in 1989. Professor Pat Rich handed him a helmet and a set of steel caps and sent him to drill into the fossil bone layer. Tunnel blasting resulted in a crayfish boat being shelled by flying rock fragments. Despite the collateral damage, Mike was hooked.
Returning to San Remo, he found his first bone and has been enrolling people ever since. Mike can tell you all the names and dates as he hands around lumps of coal embedded with 125 million-year-old bone fragments.
The excitement of discovery is contagious. This is no eye-glazing, nod-inducing recitation of facts. Mike animates these tales with down-to-earth depictions of local kids who found something amidst broken rocks and then had to scrabble back to find the rest of the creature. Their success reached the pages of the local paper.
Perhaps they will be the ones who take over from Mike as the digging progresses across the centuries. Australia’s first recognised dinosaur bone was found on May 7 1903 by Scottish geologist W H Ferguson. On the edge of a cliff at Eagles Nest, Inverloch, a marker points to the place where it was found. Named the Cape Paterson Claw, it gathered dust in the Melbourne Museum until Tim Flannery rediscovered it among the boxes and decided to explore the area around Inverloch during the 1970s.
That work evolved into the Dinosaur Dreaming dig that continues to this day. Mike Cleeland donned his gloves in 1989 and, more or less, took over from Flannery, eventually prospecting all the lower Cretaceous coastline from Inverloch to Cape Otway and beyond.
Since then, hundreds of volunteers have unearthed thousands of bone fragments and fossils. These specimens line the walls of the Bunurong Environment Centre in Inverloch and the Melbourne Museum, as well as overseas museums.
A new species is discovered around every six or seven weeks so there is constant demand for new names. The people who dedicate their lives to this adventure are commemorated in the names attached to these finds. Many discoveries are named after the area in which they were found. Koolasuchus cleelendi is named jointly after Mike and Wonthaggi’s Lesley Kool. The name Kilcundasaurus elicits a wry smile amid a poetic burst of Latin names.
A scientist with a marketing gene realised that companies and individuals would contribute money and equipment to digs if the results bore their names. Mike was present at the airline-funded exhumation of Qantasaurus. Atlascopcosaurus was discovered thanks to a mining company.
One of his larger discoveries, Koolasuchus, has been memorialised in Wallace Avenue, Inverloch.
The latest finds in which Mike has been involved are anthropological rather than paleontological. One was the discovery of a ground-edge hand axe near Flat Rocks, revealed through sand erosion. The other is a fragment of a fossilised and mineralised wombat skull fragment that may date to the days of the megafauna.
They suggest an ancient midden site, hundreds or thousands of years old, which provides a rare opportunity to look at the interaction between Aborigines and their environment at that time.
While part of him lives in the distant past, Mike likes to talk about the future. The movie Jurassic Park taught every seven-year-old about DNA. Although it's hard to see the connection, birds are the closest living relative to dinosaurs so their DNA could be used to restart the species but every seven year old knows how that movie ends. The future of dinosaurs requires more digging.
The real future of dinosaurs in Bass Coast is hidden in the rocks and hinted at by names such as Kilcundasaurus. More power to Mikeasaurus.