I set off with my fossil- hunting party from my shop “Natural Wonders Ltd” on Grape Lane in Whitby. The weather was overcast but ﬁne, and bright enough for the sun to break through later in the day. As I led the 15-strong party up the famous Whitby Abbey steps and along the Cleveland way to Saltwick Bay, no one could have anticipated this would be the day that I would find the best fossil I have ever collected.
My fossil-hunting trips are really designed for the complete beginners: those who don’t know what they are doing, who have no idea about the safety issues involved in fossil collecting, and certainly have no idea what type of rocks to look for. Therefore, I had designed this trip to suit these needs, so that people can then go out and “do it themselves”.
The great thing about fossil collecting is that you never know what you’re going to ﬁnd when you get onto the beach. So, after a run through of the “golden rules of fossil collecting” (tides are dangerous, cliffs are dangerous, bring the suitable equipment), it was straight into the shingle to search for the nodules containing the best ammonites.
Our return trip to Whitby is always along the foreshore past Saltwick Nab and under the East Cliff (also known as “the Scaur”). It is apparently along this stretch of coastline that the highest concentrations of Lias marine reptiles have been found in the UK. However, this is easy to explain and does not constitute a deﬁnitive statistic concerning the relative abundance of fossils in this part of the North Yorkshire coastline. In fact, this area used to be a thriving alum works, extracting millions of tonnes of shale each week.
Therefore, fossil remains were very common. Also, this is an “easy-access” area: many people walk this stretch of beach because of its accessibility. So, the above statement is heavily biased (palaeontologist call this a “collection bias”) and, as such, does not accurately reﬂect the true picture. The reality is that ﬁnding high-quality fossils of marine reptiles here is rare.
However, just occasionally, fortune will favour a sharp- eyed collector, as you will see. After an hour of searching for ammonites, our party slowly made its way along the shale flats towards Saltwick Nab. It was during this idle walk (“idle” on the basis that not many fossils were found) that I spotted a few toffee-coloured bones suggestively poking out from the shale. A closer look suggested that the bones were crocodile as one of the bones protruding from the ﬁssile shale was a dermal scute (body armour). Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs do not possess these bones so, when found, are very diagnostic.
Therefore, I needed to know more. I proceeded to “dig” the shale, making it split along the bedding plane just above the bone. When this was done, it revealed that the ﬁrst bone I had spotted was not worthy of further study or effort: not only was it very thin, it was also fragmentary. However, on closer examination of the hole I had just dug, I found another tantalising bone protruding from the shale. It resembled a small log of wood but was certainly bone and cried out for further investigation. So, I proceeded to force my hammer (pick end) into the shale under the bone. The shale cracked into a large slab. Indeed, so much so that, in lifting the piece with my hammer, I stumbled backwards. This made the shale ﬂip over and reveal its hidden secret – the complete head of a marine crocodile.
It was instantly recognisable as a skull (as you can see from Figs. 1 to 5) and I proceeded to point out the distinguishing features to my party. On closer examination, I discovered that the snout (or “rostrum”) was still encased within the adjoining piece of shale.
After several more minutes of hard work, the rostrum was revealed and found to be fully intact. This is very rare: the majority of fossils crocodile skulls found are minus the rostrum. This is easy to understand, as it is very long and can easily be broken. At this point, I had to sit down. The adrenalin was coursing through my veins and I had to calm down because I still had to get this stunner back to my workshop in one piece and I still had a guided fossil-hunt to conduct. Therefore, after scooping up any other bits of bones I could ﬁnd, I carefully put the ﬁnd in my rucksack.
I am not sure exactly who was more excited by the ﬁnd, my fellow fossil-hunters or me. It just goes to show that it can be done and that you never know what you are going to ﬁnd until you walk down that beach. As I showed my party the geological features in the cliff faces and pointed out dinosaur footprints protruding from the huge sandstone blocks on the beach, in fairness, the rest of the walk must have been an anti-climax. However, I am not sure that anybody really minded given what had just happened.
At the end of the walk, a few of my companions wanted to know what I would do with the skull. I explained that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime find and that I was deﬁnitely not selling the item, even though I knew that it was worth several thousand pounds. I also advised them that it was my intention that, once prepared, I would display it within my shop, so that visitors to Whitby could also appreciate this beautiful fossil.