Monday, April 14, 2014

Fossil Hunting in England's Jurassic - Saltwick Bay, Whitby

Greetings from Whitby, Yorkshire, home of the Dinosaur Coast and several bays granting access to both the North Sea and seaside cliffs full of Jurassic fossils.   We're finally saying goodbye to jet lag and a very welcome hello to jet black and the east coast of England.

Jet Black
Today (April 13) we went to Saltwick (pronounced 'salt tick') Bay 2 miles south of Whitby, with easy access to the sea and plentiful ammonites and belemnites.  We believe Barry found a fairly rare piece of jet black.  Bloody hell!  Jet black is petrified wood made from the extinct Araucariaceae tree, a relative of the living Monkey Puzzle tree, made fashionable when Queen Victoria made it into jewelry and wore it while in mourning for Prince Albert.  Whitby is the jet black capital of the world.

We hope one day WIPS members might consider a visit to this neck of the woods.  It really is another world and an incredible high when we sit on a rock, surrounded by seaweed, splitting shale to find a pyritized ammonite or belemnite waiting inside, or spy the rounded hint of an ammonite peeking out from a mass of boulders.

Barry above First Nab
This 'field trip' is not without its risks. January storms eroded up to seven years of cliff face within a few weeks along this coast, leaving the cliffs extremely unstable; some have been hurt recently by falling rocks from the saturated ground above, so we keep a good 4-5' distance from the base. 

We head out as the tide is going out (9:00 am this morning), which gives us time to scout around the Second Nab (rock jutting out of the water) and return to the safety of the beach area by the time high tide returns a few hours later.  Novices can get stranded facing an incoming sea and steep cliffs with no way out.  My Iowa farm upbringing didn't begin to prepare me for these water hazards.

The Middle and Lower Jurassic are exposed along the coast in the 200-600' cliffs, which are regularly eroded by storms and tides from the North Sea.  The base of the cliffs at Whitby and Saltwick Bay are Lower Jurassic.  About halfway up is the Dogger, a marker bed made of hard rock and hard nodules, and on top of that is the Middle Jurassic. 

The cliffs get older as we travel north.  Most of our finds come from the Whitby Mudstone Formation of the Lower Toarcian from the Lower Jurassic.  Unlike fossil collection in America, in the UK we can collect vertebrates.  If the site is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), hammering isn't allowed.

Belemnite Guard

Whitby is a lovely fishing village on the Yorkshire coast, hosting the world's best ammonite museum, the home of alum, Captain Cook, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" setting at the local Abbey, various shipwrecks, and a very active fishing fleet setting out with lobster and crab cages, setting the sea gulls squawking. On our way over from the west coast, we lunched next to a 1719 fireplace, and today we walked past a 1609 fisherman's cottage and the 1401 Smugglers Pub.  What history!

After several treks with suitcases to our flat (with outstanding views overlooking red tile rooftops, Whitby Bay and the Abbey) up 44 steps, and the many uneven and steep steps up and down from cliffs to shore, Barry says even his pygidium aches, which we treat with a few pints at our new local, the Elsinore Pub.

View of Whitby Abbey across Whitby Bay from kitchen window

For more information of this fantastic Jurassic area, the best book is "Fossils of the Whitby Coast" by Dean Lomax, a WIPS member.  "The Floating Egg" by Roger Osborne, deals with this coastline.

For information on UK geology:

We belong to UKAFH (UK Amateur Fossil Hunters).  Their newsletter, "Trilobite Times", is free, fun, with superb photos of their field trips collections.  Sadly we weren't able to meet up with them on this trip.  Check out their website:

Cindy and Barry Smith

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