There are plenty of fossils to be found around the coast of Whitby. Affectionately known as the Dinosaur Coast, you can find a variety of Whitby fossils around the surrounding coastline.
The North Yorkshire seaside is often called the Dinosaur Coast. This unlikely moniker is given for the vast hordes of fossil finds along this stretch of the North Sea coastline.
A visit to the many excellent beaches either side of Whitby will yield a find of unique and historic interest – Whitby fossils are a popular souvenir is this part of the world.
Far from the madding crowd
Away from the bustling of the town centre, there are several free activities which you can enjoy during your visit to the Yorkshire coast. One of my favourites is searching for Whitby fossils.
The beaches to the north and south of Whitby yield prehistoric finds of many varieties. Ammonites, reptile remains and shells are easy to stumble upon whilst out walking.
And, of course, Whitby is famous for jet which is similarly easy to find if you know where to look. There are several places along the Whitby coast where you can find Whitby fossils – it's simply a case of local knowledge and a little bit of luck.
Whitby Museum is home to a colossal collection of fossil finds. It was the discovery of the iconic and famous Teleosuarus chapmani that sparked the creation of the Whitby Museum itself.
In the late 18th Century fossils of huge importance and stature were discovered by amateurs, mostly alum quarrymen, along the coast of North Yorkshire. These items were sold off to collectors the length and breadth of Great Britain.
In 1823 the Whitby Philosophical and Literary Society was formed at the behest of Rev. George Young, in order to create a permanent gallery to preserve the finds made in and around the Whitby area.
The discovery of a giant marine reptile was first recorded in a publication called The Gentleman's Magazine. The quote reads:
“Skeleton of an Allegator found in the Allom Rock near Whitby, January 3, 1758”
-The Gentleman's Magazine, 1759
Teleosaurus chapmani was found and excavated by a local carpenter and fossil collector by the name of Brown Marshall. The gigantic skeleton was purchased by the museum for £7 in 1824.
Whitby Museum is the best place to go to see the many ‘treasures’ found locally over the years. Its geology collection is quite stunning and is a match for anything in the UK.
The marine reptiles are especially impressive. Your eyes will immediately be drawn to something looking much like a crocodile that hangs on the wall.
When you visit Whitby, you will see history in its streets. Whitby Abbey has stood proudly atop the cliff on the east side for centuries, while there is much to enjoy in the museums of Whitby relating to the past and the sea.
However, Whitby offers something much older as well; fossils. If you enjoy roaming and have the patience, there are places you can find Whitby fossils for yourself.
The immediate coastline remains home to ammonites, reptile remains and shells that date back more than 185 million years, such is the history available to us in the British Isles.
Whitby Jet can be found in many places along the beaches and the at the base of headlands such as those found at Saltwick Bay.
If you go in search of fossils as a family, take care that the kids don’t venture into places where the rock might crumble. The cliffs are loose and often fall away unexpectedly.
The best time to go looking is at low tide to see the debris that the sea has deposited. If the winds have been blowing and the sea is rough, there is a good chance of a find.
Make sure you keep an eye on the tide. The sea comes in mighty quickly and people have been known to get cut off by the advancing tide with no means of getting away.
St Hilda, the snake killer
The story goes that Hilda turned a field full of snakes to stone and that these stone coils rolled off the cliff into the sea.
It at first appears a far fetched tale until you see such a fossil as the one above. But then, this is Whitby and a good pinch of salt is required where any local story is concerned.
Spinning yarns is a team sport here in Whitby, the longer the yarn and more unbelievable the better. That said, like all tall stories, there is always a grain of truth somewhere.
In this case, enterprising fossil collectors of the 19th century keen to cash in on the St Hilda tale used to carve heads onto ammonites, therefore, adding credibility to the snake killing myth and making a quick shilling in the bargain.
Where can you find fossils in and around Whitby
Whitby is surrounded by beaches, to the north and south. You will enjoy each of them, and there is a chance that you can find fossils during your time there. One of the region’s nicknames is the ‘’Dinosaur Coast’’ and palaeontologists and those interested in fossils in general head here from far and wide.
- Staithes was Captain Cook’s home but it is also the northern end of the ‘’Dinosaur Coast.’’ There are organised tours centring on Staithes although you are more than welcome to search independently. Kids will be impressed if they find ‘’fools’ gold’’ which comes in small pieces; iron pyrite.
- Port Mulgrave a little to the south and you must take care if you head down to the beach in search of fossils so it is not a place for kids. There are ammonites and reptile remains regularly found by those who do get down to the beach.
- Runswick Bay is the next place heading south to Whitby, a beach of sand and rock with plenty of rockpools to explore. Ammonites are regularly found here when you search among the tidal debris and the rocks.
- Kettleness Bay is to the west of Runswick Bay, a fairly remote cove whose appeal is largely fossils. It is not suitable for children because access is difficult. Ammonites and other fossils are regularly found on the foreshore and on the shale cliff face. Whitby Jet is also found here.
- Sandsend Ness is another favourite with fossil collectors. The shale banks are filled with belemnites close to the surface. Sandsend Beach itself to the south is family-friendly but not so productive for fossils.
- Upgang Whitby Beach, Whitby Sands and Tate Hill Beach are the closest to the town but known more for families to enjoy the sands rather than for fossils.
- Saltwick Bay is south of Whitby and at times access can be fairly difficult due to the erosion of the steps on the path. It is not a place for swimmers but fossil hunters may well find both ammonites and belemnites. Whitby Jet is also found amongst the rocks and shale.
What type of fossils might you find?
Several different fossils can be found along this stretch of coastline:
- Ammonites are now extinct marine animals. Their appearance is shell-like and they may be as much as 140 million years old. Certainly, it is thought they became extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
- Belemnites were squid-like in appearance and are dated 135 million years ago. They get the nickname, ‘’bullet stone’’ because of their appearance.
- Dinosaur/Reptiles Remains are most likely to be found just above the level of the beach in the cliff faces.
- Jet is compressed wood from the Araucaria or Monkey Puzzle tree. This organic gemstone is thought to be about 180 million years old and is commonly used to make jewellery.
Essential fossil collecting kit
Fossils are regularly found on the foreshore among the debris left by the tides. You can expect to find more after rough weather, so in fact, wintertime is popular with fossil hunters.
Ammonites are regularly found trapped under rocks so it is a fruitful exercise searching amongst the rocks and in the pools. Otherwise, fossils can be found among the shales and also at the cliff face where the rock is fairly loose.
Depending on the time of year you may wish to wear waterproof clothing of some kind. The swell can soak the feet and the wind can freeze the bones.
A sturdy pair of walking boots or even better, Wellington boots are recommended for Whitby fossil finding expeditions.
A reliable waterproof and a warm pair of gloves are highly advised. The weather changes quickly on the coast and there's nothing worse than catching a cold on your fossil hunting adventure.
For more advanced enthusiasts we suggest taking a rucksack or backpack of some kind. This will help to store and take away all the amazing things that you find.
Spare socks are a Whitby fossil finding essential.
A small hammer may be helpful on the cliffs. Usually, a quick tap on a lump of rock reveals an imprint of a shell or belemnite.
The shape of a creature that lived millions of years ago hidden inside the stone.
Something long and pointy like a screwdriver or a small pry bar is handy when rummaging around for fossils. A pry bar means that you can prize the rocks apart and chip away at stuck objects.
We never leave home on a Whitby fossil ferreting mission without a flask of hot sweet tea. You can thank us later when you've returned home with your stash of shells and rocks.
We find that a notebook and pencil is useful when recording the fossil finds, as is a camera for capturing the original and recording the process.
Buy a ready-made fossil hunting kit
If you're serious about finding Whitby fossils you need to be prepared. There are several kits available on Amazon which include all the tools you need to find fossils along the North Yorkshire Coastline. We have listed some of the best below.
Most of the fossils can be found on the foreshore at Whitby, especially after storms or scouring conditions within nodules or loose within the areas of shingle and shale, but fossils are also commonly found in the cliff on the scree slopes either in nodules or loose.
Whitby fossils have become the inspiration for a local creative endeavour. Ruth Denison of Mount House has turned to the beauty of the ammonites found on the beach as inspiration for her range of artisan soaps.
Handmade Whitby ammonite soaps take the design of several large fossil finds and turn them into delightfully stylish soaps for the home.
Common sense when collecting at all locations should be taken and knowledge of tide times should always be noted. It is very easy to get cut off at Whitby, the sea always hits the cliff. You should ensure you return before the tide turns. Also be aware of sticky areas at Whitby, on the slippages as it is easy to get stuck especially after rain.