Cold weather and big waves are less conducive to long swims, but it is weather for beachcombing as wind and waves cast debris on the shore. Fossils are the perfect target: both ancient ones and those being laid into the future.
Colder weather sees waves reaching further up beaches and rain running down cliffs, washing fossils out of mud. Fossils are ancient life preserved in rock and this occurs in different ways. Very rarely, whole organism fossils are found in which the soft tissue is preserved by freezing, desiccation, or encasement in tar or resin. Most fossils are formed when heat or pressure from burial in sediment leaves a residue of carbon in the shape of an organism. Sometimes when organisms’ soft tissues decay in sediment, water containing minerals seeps into spaces between bones and leaves an enduring outline of the organism in minerals. Fossils can also be moulds or casts of the exterior of an organism – like the giant stone donuts on the cliffs east of Lulworth Cove in Dorset (below, left), which are moulds of ancient tree stumps. Fossils aren’t just records of history: they tell us about life itself and influence human society. Fossils fuelled Darwin’s theory of evolution. Archaeopteryx fossils found in the sediment remains of a tropical sea within which Europe was immersed as an archipelago show the bridge between dinosaurs and birds in the form of a creature that had both feathers and a toothed jaw.
Fossils aren’t just records of history: they tell us about life itself and influence human society… Over winter, fossils are released from being buried in mud and in early Spring can still be found loose on the beach. If they aren’t picked up they wash out with tides into the sea.
Over winter, fossils are released from being buried in mud and in early Spring they can still be found loose on the beach. If they aren’t picked up they wash out with tides into the sea. Although many fossils are lost to the sea, constant washing out of mud replaces them. However, on some sites fossils are finite and should not be collected as it damages the site. Those embedded in rock that require digging to remove are best left to experts who know how to extract them without damaging them.
Fossiling on beaches, although technically on dry land, requires basic awareness of the sea. Once you have found a fossil the excitement becomes distracting, so it is important to know in advance what the sea will be doing so that you avoid getting trapped at the base of a cliff by a tide that has risen while you were distracted. Check tide times in advance. Go out along the shoreline looking for fossils as the tide is falling. Keep an eye on the time or set an alarm to remind you to head back as the tide starts to rise again.
Never hammer at cliffs to get fossils out. If you can get a rock out of a cliff it is unstable and especially after winter waves and rain there is a risk its edges can collapse. Stay away from cliff edges and look for fossils in safety further down the beach. Charmouth in Dorset has fossils on the beach, and shares a good guide to safe and sustainable fossiling online. Nearby, Lyme Regis Museum runs fossil walks that are excellent both in terms of their knowledgeable guide and the fossil-rich location. While there, give a salute to fossil hunter and expert Mary Anning, who scientists of her time consulted but did not receive the recognition she deserved from society at the time because she was a woman. While the Natural History Museum in London has great collections of fossils on display, The Etches Collection in Kimmeridge has fossils, runs activities for children, and is located just above Kimmeridge. So on a visit to the Etches Collection you can combine finding out about fossils with a look for fossils on the beach and a swim.
There is consensus that the Anthropocene is characterised by humans leaving evidence of their impact on earth in geological records. One of the ways we are doing this is in layers of plastic becoming part of the history of time left in rocks.
In 2016 the name for our current era in the Geologic Time Scale was proposed: The Anthropocene. While the Holocene era is considered to be the time since the last Ice Age, the official start of the Anthropocene is still being debated. Was it the Trinity test in 1945 when the first nuclear weapon was detonated, or 1780 when the invention of the steam engine began the Industrial Revolution? Regardless of start date, there is consensus that the Anthropocene is characterised by humans leaving evidence of their impact on earth in geological records. One of the ways we are doing this is in layers of plastic becoming part of the history of time left in rocks.
In early spring when the water is cool and beach visits are less time in the sea, more time on the beach why not take a moment to reduce the negative debris of our legacy and #take3forthesea or do a #2minutebeachclean. If you feel like investing more time and effort there are even a few seaside businesses that will reward you for your efforts. Henrietta from Menai holidays told me, “Lligwy Beach Cafe, near Moelfre, Anglesey offers a free drink in return for collecting litter from the beach. They provide bags and litter pickers. My children love doing it and enjoy the reward for doing something that they know is really important.”
Cheryl, the proprietor added: “We have been so pleased with the enthusiasm that children and adults have shown for using the bags and litter pickers. We also have buckets, spades and toys available to borrow to reduce the sale of plastic goods. And I’ve been amazed to overhear children asking to use the litter pickers rather than borrow the toys!”. This isn’t restricted to child friendly rewards or the UK – at Oyster Box Hotel in Durban guests can collect a bucket of litter on the beach and swap it for a cocktail.
Haeckels in Margate will accept a bag of rubbish from Walpole Bay and in return given you one of three of their beachy products in return – facial cleanser, exfoliant powder or beard oil. They’ve extended this to people who aren’t on their beach. If you clean a beach, take a photo, post it on Instagram and tag @haeckels and use the hashtag #HaeckelsBeachClean. They will send you a 40% discount code that can be used on your next purchase on their website. Dom Bridges, founder of Haeckels, says: “We are committed to using business to inspire and implement solutions to aid the world’s ocean crisis. By inviting our customers to clean the beach in exchange for a product or discount they’re climbing on board with our philosophy and making a difference to the world around them. Even though it might be a small change, doing something is better than doing nothing.”
So beaches aren’t just for platforms for swimming. You can find bits of ancient history on them, swap rubbish for treats, or just leave the beach and the future a bit less rubbish-filled than you found it.