Slice of paradise . . . Cutting the Vanished World's Society's 20th anniversary cake is its science adviser, Prof Ewan Fordyce, who was awarded with a lifetime membership during the society's anniversary celebration in Duntroon last weekend. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/KARAN LAWRENCE

It’s not just the fossils that have kept Vanished World Heritage Centre alive for 20 years.

More than 60 people gathered at the Duntroon Hotel last weekend to celebrate the Vanished World Society’s 20th anniversary.

Chairwoman and volunteer Faye Ormandy said volunteers were central to what Vanished World did, from staffing the centre and hosting school groups to maintaining trails around the district.

Many volunteers were farmers who had found fossils on their properties and had remained the “mainstay of the organisation 20 years on”.

“Some of those people are the same people that were at the very first meeting and are still there now, because they are passionate about it,” Mrs Ormandy said.

The organisation was run entirely by volunteers, but received a lot of help from the University of Otago’s geology department and had developed a great relationship with it.

University of Otago professor and Vanished World science advisor Ewan Fordyce had played a huge part on the organisation’s establishment.

“It’s been a real partnership,” she said.

His involvement began in the 1980s when he was searching the oligocene Otekaike limestones and underlying greensand formations in Duntroon for fossils.

This collaboration between the university and farmers on whose properties significant fossils were found led to the discovery of previously unknown species of penguins, baleen, dolphins and toothed whales.

In the late 1990s Prof Fordyce suggest creating a space in Duntroon to showcase the fossils found in their own backyard.

In October 2000, the incorporated society was established.

“This is the result from a conversation like that.”

As an acknowledgement of the “tremendous amount of professional support” he had given the organisation, Prof Fordyce was honoured with a lifetime membership.

Also honoured was the late Bill Simpson, who had collaborated with Prof Fordyce and named the Valley of the Whales, a deep gulch cut by the Awamoko Stream through North Otago limestone.

“It’s hard to believe all of this area was under the sea,” Mrs Ormandy said.

“The fossils found here are of national and international significance.”

Saturday’s celebrations were a small way to recognise the huge amount of work achieved by a volunteer organisation.

“If we don’t, who else is going to – or we suddenly see it through someone else’s eyes.”