I got into geology at the age of 11 on Charmouth Beach – a walk by the seaside and the chance spot of a perfect iron pyrites ammonite fossil just lying in the sand and, well, that was it! The really nice thing about Charmouth is that some 40 years on, kids of my age then can still find the same fantastic fossils now because the cliffs continue to erode and deliver fossils onto the beaches.
The really frustrating thing about an interest such as fossil hunting is that the best times to collect are unpredictable. If only we had known that the 5th of February 2013 was going to see one of the biggest storms in 50 years, well I would not have said ‘yes’ to the Swanage Coastal Change Forum and felt obliged to go when my mobile phone was buzzing away with ‘Wow, you should be at X, Y and Z…’. So the way around that is to book holidays over the big spring tides and go out on the ledges looking for ichthyosaurs. During these times it is more likely to be calm than rough and that allows the tide to go out a long way, exposing a vast area to search. If, by chance, there is a big storm, all well and good and I can look to see what has been washed out of the landslides. So there is always something to do.
Ichthyosaur hunting involves patiently and slowly pacing across the Blue Lias ledges either side of Lyme, looking for the smallest scrap of bone. You cannot go out expecting to find something, or rather, if you take that attitude, you need to expect to be disappointed! Over the winter of 2012/13 I found three ichthyosaurs and part of a scattered plesiosaur. Since then, despite about 60 trips out, I have essentially found nothing! And that is despite the ‘superb’ weather of 2013/14. And so it was with Christmas Eve 2014 supper (beef casserole with spring onions) glugging away in the slow cooker, I found myself out on Broad Ledge with just one other collector and found this… but what is it?
It is in fact the partial skull of a perfect juvenile ichthyosaur; the jaw and teeth are most obvious but so to is the eye socket or half of it at least. There is no point looking for the rest as this specimen is coated and infused with solid iron pyrites and is going to suffer spectacular ‘pyrite decay’ which will destroy it completely. Indeed, it has already broken in the careless hands of one of our archaeologists. Such is life but the tides are very good in February, March and April…… it is only a matter of time before the BIG1 shows itself….. it has to happen!