Saltwick Bay is located along the Yorkshire Coast, between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, and can be accessed from the Cleveland Way, which passes the spectacular Whitby Abbey. The geology of the area is predominantly Jurassic in age, with the site often being described as a ‘fossil treasure trove’. The bay yields a wide variety of specimens, including common ammonites and belemnites to rarer finds such as marine reptiles, Whitby Jet and even dinosaur footprints. Even though Saltwick Bay is close to Whitby, it is still a very productive locality and you never leave empty handed. In fact, it is a good location for families and beginners.
The walk to Saltwick Bay from Whitby itself is approximately 2.4km and provides many picturesque views of the abbey, the harbour entrance and the remarkable coastline. The steps leading down to the beach are located just past Whitby Holiday Park, but can sometimes be slippery during winter months. It is also recommended that you check tide times for the area before arriving, as high tide can limit the extent of accessibility and could potentially cut you off.
Once you have made your way down the steps, fossils can be found immediately among the scree or in the shingle. However, it is advisable stay away from the base of the cliffs, as rock falls are common, with loose fragments of shale constantly falling down.
From my experience, the best fossils are found to the right of the bay, past Saltwick Nab. During your walk, you will encounter the remains of a Scarborough trawler, known as The Admiral Van Tromp, which ran aground in 1976. This accident lead to the death of two crew members and, even to this day, the circumstances of the accident remain a complete mystery. However, this shipwreck simply adds to the wonder and atmosphere of the bay.
Ammonites are very common in the bay and, due to their easily recognisable features, they are possibly one of the most collected fossil groups along the Whitby coastline. The most common species is Dactylioceras commune, whose shell is evolute (that is, its outer whorl does not cover the preceding ones) and has fine, branching ribs, which are closely spaced. This particular ammonite is often found in nodules that have to be split open using a geological hammer, which then shows both the positive and negative fossil. If you intend to do this, wearing safety goggles is strongly recommended, as fragments of shale often fly off when the nodule is hit with a hammer.
The Dactylioceras commune specimen in Fig. 4 was found inside a small nodule, which, when split open, shows both a positive and negative fossil. The actual fossil is the positive side (right), while the impression of the ammonite creates the negative (left). Like most fossils at Saltwick Bay, Dactylioceras commune is Jurassic in age and approximately 178myrs old.
The ammonite, Hildoceras, can also be found in this area, with many specimens being discovered as both positive and negative fossils. Hildoceras lusitanicum is common and can be recognised by its evolute shell, widely-spaced ribs and distinct keel (Fig. 5). Hildoceras bifrons can also be easy to find and both species are approximately 180myrs old.
Shale bedding planes are present, which are full of bivalves and compressed ammonites, together with belemnites, which can vary from 5cm to 25cm or more in length. Belemnites can also be found loose in the shingle, between the larger rock fragments and scree. There are many belemnite species to be found at Saltwick Bay, but two of the most common include Acrocoelites vulgaris and Acrocoelites subtenuis, which can be identified by their thick and thin guards, respectively (Fig. 6).
Fossilised wood is also very common. Large specimens can be found in blocks of sandstone on the beach, while smaller pieces can be found among the shingle. However, the most famous is Whitby Jet, which is the fossilised remains of trees similar to monkey puzzle trees. While jet is often found in large seams of rock in the cliffs, smaller samples can also be washed up onto the beach.
An assortment of other plant fossils can be also collected from the beach, mostly among the scree, as they tend to come from strata out of reach, at the top of the cliffs. Zamites gigas is one species that can be found at Saltwick Bay, which belongs to a group of plants known as the Bennettitaleans. Zamites is approximately 174myrs old and is fairly common. The specimen in Fig. 7 was found to the north of the bay, in the scree, and the rock it was in was split open using a geological hammer and chisel. Both of the specimens in Figs. 8 and 9 are examples of how Zamites gigas is found in a variety of sizes, from the larger specimen on the right, which was found to the north of the bay on a large block of sandstone, to the smaller specimen, which was found among the scree to the south.
Apart from Zamites, several other plant genera can be found at Saltwick Bay, including Phlebopteris, Williamsonia and Baieria. Ferns are common and are easily recognisable due to their iconic fronds. One fern genus (Coniopteris) can be found in the Saltwick Formation (a course to fine-grained, yellowy sandstone deposited in a river delta), which is approximately 172myrs old. A specimen of Coniopteris can be seen in Fig. 10. After studying this specimen, I was unsure of the species, so sought the advice of palaeontologist, Dean Lomax (with confirmation from Prof Han van Konijnenburg-van Cittert), to help with its identification. Dean identified the specimen as perhaps being Coniopteris ?murrayana. The specimen was found to the south of the bay, in between the large blocks of sandstone and shingle. Even though there are a few different genera of ferns along this coastline, this particular genus is quite uncommon.
Saltwick Bay produces a variety of bivalves, with Pseudomytiloides dubius, Gryphaea sp. and Dacryomya ovum being very common. P. dubius can be found compressed in the large shale boulders to the north of the bay and is often found in abundant numbers, while Gryphaeas can be found among the shingle.
Fragmented fish remains can also be found, but complete specimens are rare. However, isolated bones can be found across the bay. The specimen in Fig. 12 is from a large ray-finned fish (Gyrosteus mirabilis), which lived approximately 180mya. Small molluscs approximately one centimetre in size can also be seen on the specimen.
As well as all the previously mentioned fossils, Saltwick Bay is also home to a large collection of footprints made by various dinosaurs, including theropods, ornithopods, sauropods and even stegosaurs. As you make your way past Saltwick Nab, these can be found in fallen blocks. The blocks containing these casts are also from the Saltwick Formation. However due to natural weathering and erosion, these footprints are both difficult to locate and to interpret.
Without doubt, Saltwick Bay is a fossil-hunter’s paradise due to its high productivity and the variety of fossils there. However, it is not the only location to visit in the area. Many localities along this coastline, such as Port Mulgrave, Runswick Bay, Kettleness and Robin Hood’s Bay, also provide us with fantastic specimens of corresponding age. These fossils ultimately allow us to understand what life was like in the Jurassic and what animals once inhabited what is now North Yorkshire, both on both land and in the sea.
I would like to say a big thank you to Dean Lomax for both his assistance and encouragement while writing this article, and also for the passion that I now have for palaeontology. A big thanks is also due to Dr Dawn Windley for expanding my knowledge on the subject and for fuelling my enthusiasm for fossils throughout my time at college.
About the Author
I am currently studying for a BSc Hons degree in palaeontology at the University of Portsmouth, after recently completing my A-levels in geology and geography. I love being out in the field fossil collecting and have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to volunteer at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery alongside Dean. During August 2014, I was also awarded a Young Darwin Scholarship by the Field Studies Council (FSC) for my interests in the natural world.
Lomax, D.R. 2011. Fossils of the Whitby coast, a photographic guide. Siri Scientific Press.